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Twitter Drives 4x As Much Traffic As Google Says It Does [STUDY]

Last month MG Siegler wrote a post on TechCrunch that claimed that LinkedIn was now sending ‘far more’ traffic to TechCrunch than Twitter.

A lot of things in the article didn’t sit well with me. I’ve had access to the Google Analytics statistics on a number of high-trafficked websites and I’ve never seen any significant referrals from LinkedIn. I also knew that Google’s take on what constituted traffic from Twitter was unreliable. But I figured that maybe it was different at TechCrunch, a technology blog that covered LinkedIn quite heavily and was therefore likely to see a lot of referrers from shares on that site. Maybe, as Siegler suggested, the recently-launched LinkedIn Today social news mailshot was a total game-changer.

Siegler’s intentions were sound but he made a number of fundamental errors in his piece, notably that he was actually talking about referrer data from Twitter.com, and not Twitter per se (he later realised his mistake and amended his post, although not conclusively). That is, we know that Twitter.com only accounts for a certain percentage of all Twitter usage, so by definition it must then also account for an equal (or, more likely, lower) percentage of Twitter referrer traffic. A large chunk of those referrals come from Twitter clients such as TweetDeck and HootSuite, as well as the myriad of smartphone apps and m.twitter.com.

There’s no doubt that referrals from LinkedIn have increased in the past few months, but LinkedIn isn’t anywhere close to Twitter’s level as a source of traffic for the majority of websites across the internet. In fact, LinkedIn’s numbers could be somewhat deceptive and probably shouldn’t be claiming any lion’s share of credit at all. And now we have the stats to prove it.

Jonathan Strauss (@jhstrauss) is co-founder of awe.sm, an analytics platform that lets businesses track what happens to the content they share on networks such as Twitter. You’ve probably seen the awe.sm shortened links on Twitter and around the web.

Strauss also took umbridge with Siegler’s post, and yesterday published a devastating rebuttal which proved that not only was Twitter a far better driver of traffic than suggested by Google Analytics and other statistical platforms, but that Twitter.com accounts for less than 25% of all traffic that originates from Twitter across all of its mediums.

In other words, Twitter referrals are four times bigger than you thought. Or more accurately: than you’ve been told.

The problem  is that Google Analytics has a very limited capability of figuring out where traffic originates. Google understands websites and browsers, but gets all giddy and blue in the face when trying to decipher visits from non-browsers – things like clients, apps and mobile handsets, or even from non-browser email software, such as Thunderbird or iMail.

This false data very likely includes visitors ‘from’ LinkedIn, as well, as many users auto-populate their LinkedIn feeds with content that originated on Twitter. Unfairly, and even though Twitter is the true source, LinkedIn gets all the glory. Yep, that’s right – LinkedIn is The Huffington Post of the social world, scalping its way to the top.

Strauss analysed six months of awe.sm data over the first half of 2011, which included links to some 33,000 websites, and discovered that:

  1. Less than a quarter of clicks (24.4%) on links shared on Twitter had twitter.com in the referrer
  2. 62.6% of clicks on links shared on Twitter had no referrer information at all – they misleadingly show up as Direct Traffic in Google Analytics
  3. 13.0% of clicks on links shared on Twitter had another site as the referrer – for example, facebook.com, linkedin.com

So what the heck is ‘direct traffic’? What does Google mean? Strauss explains:

When a user clicks a link in any kind of non-browser client, from Outlook to a desktop AIR app to the countless mobile and tablet apps, no referrer information is passed for that visit and your analytics software basically throws up its hands and puts the visit in the ‘Direct Traffic’ bucket. The assumptions behind this fallback behavior show just how arcane referrer analysis is — if a visit didn’t come from another webpage (i.e. no referrer data), someone must have typed the URL directly into their browser address bar.

If you’ve spent the last few years wondering why the proportion of ‘Direct Traffic’ to your site has been on the rise, the answer is the growing usage of non-browser clients, especially on mobile. And since 2/3 of Twitter consumption is happening in desktop and mobile clients*, it’s safe to say that a lot of your ‘Direct Traffic’ is actually coming from Twitter.

In other words, it isn’t that Twitter isn’t the traffic behemoth that we all suspected it was – if you use bit.ly or Chartbeat, or pay close attention to retweets and shares you’d have known something didn’t feel right – it’s that Google Analytics isn’t sophisticated enough to figure out where most of these referrals are coming from.

What particularly irks me about this is that Google has already starting making changes to the way links from Google+ are managed so they show up correctly within Analytics. Which means that unless they implement this with Twitter, too, and all of its clients and apps, inevitably Google+ will quickly start showing up as a serious rival to Twitter as a referral traffic source within Google Analytics. Maybe even better than Twitter. Ergo, and deceptive as those numbers would be, this could lead to a lot of people, none-the-wiser about what is going on, giving Google+ a bigger chunk of their attention. Which, soon enough, would make the viability of Google+ as a strong source of traffic an actual reality.

What’s that? You think Google might be doing this intentionally? Or that they won’t be in any rush to get Twitter referrals working properly in Google Analytics because it will inevitably crap all over their grand plans for Google+?

You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

(Source: awe.sm blog.)

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