App referral traffic to your web site and how to track it

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Measuring referrals from mobile and tablet apps to web sites is extremely difficult – actually, its practically impossible. Over the past few years you will have seen traffic from direct/typed/bookmarked sources increase steadily as app usage has increased. Unfortunately this is not because your web site has become a destination for your chosen content, but instead its because your analytics platforms are unable to attribute traffic to apps.

I am specifically finding traffic from social media apps, so Facebook and Twitter, the hardest to track down. There are techniques that I discuss below that can help you to track content that you post yourself, but unfortunately this doesn’t help with organic sharing.

While Facebook Insights for domains does give you some level of overall referrer information, it does not breakdown the traffic between desktop and mobile.

This post explains why your analytics package is currently unable to track this traffic and tries to find some solutions to help you to make sense of it all.

So how do analytics platforms track referrals?

Most analytics packages use header information contained in your user’s web browser to determine which site the user had been to previously to visiting your web site. This header information only appears if a user clicks on a link to your site. For example, if I am on web site A, click on a link to web site B, then the header information would show that the referrer was web site A.

Just so we are clear, if I am on web site C, then type web site D’s domain name into my web browser, then there would be no referrer and the traffic source would be Direct.

No referrer in the header

This latter example explains why measuring app traffic is extremely difficult; an app is not a web site, it is not viewed in a web browser and they do not contain header information when linking out to a web site.

There are two different techniques that apps can use to open up web content:

  1. Open the content in a native mobile or tablet browser – such as Safari, Chrome, Android Browser, Opera etc
  2. Open the content in an in-app version of the native browser

In both cases, because the app is opening up a new instance of a web browser, whether its the native browser app or the in-app version of the browser app, there is no referrer in the headers. So when your analytics package is seeing the user visiting your web site, it is seeing that there is no referral and  it will deem the traffic to have no source and therefore assign that referral as direct.

So how can we track app referral traffic?

There are a couple of things that we can do as content creators to get around this:

Google’s UTM Tracking: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033867?hl=en

If you use Google Analytics, you can use the built in UTM tracker to track links that you post to other web sites or platforms. Quite a few URL shortening services and sharing plaforms such as Buffer, Bit.ly and Owl.ly allow you to add these dynamically so you don’t need to keep adding the tracking manually.

When a user visits your site using a UTM tracked link, this will override what is contained in the web browser’s header and attribute the source of the traffic to relevant keyword that you add to the tracking. You need to be very careful here as I have seen instances where these have been setup incorrectly and links posted to Facebook with Twitter as the source have been shared which makes the data inconsistent and unreliable.

One thing to note on this, is to only use this method for external, inbound site links. You should not use these links on internal links as they automatically start a new site visit – meaning that you will see a spike in visits whenever someone clicks on your tracked links.

Using a similar service for other analytics platforms:

Many other analytics platforms have a similar method for campaign tracking. While these have been primarily used for more traditional marketing campaign tracking, there is no reason why you cannot do use this same method for the sharing of content.

Limitations

This would only work for content that you share yourself. There is no way to enforce this for any organic shares – so when a user copies and pastes a url from your web sites into a social status update for example.

Also, as you cannot post content to a specific device or platform, you cannot differentiate easily between a social media’s desktop, mobile web or mobile app experience. So while you may get closer to tracking Facebook traffic, you will still not know the make up of desktop, mobile web or mobile app referrals.

 

Mike Dixon

Author: Mike Dixon

Mike is a Senior Director with 16 years’ worth of digital experience across data, digital analytics, advertising / marketing technology, product management, project management, leadership, coaching, mentoring and team building. Mike consults with large companies so that they better understand the opportunities that data and technology can unlock and works with senior executives ensuring that this is at the core of their business and decision making processes. Mike has also created, developed and delivered award winning propositions across all digital platforms – desktop, mobile, tablet and Digital TV - utilising strong business, technical, analytical, product and project management experience.

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