Where Do Websites Get Traffic From? [Spoiler: not magic]

You've set up your website, or it's about to go live... now "all you need" is some traffic, i.e. human visitors.

Here's a list of where your website traffic might come from:

0. Magic
1. Direct
2. Organic Search (in English as of 2015 this means Google)
3. Social Media
4. Referrals (apart from social media)
5. Advertising
a) Search
b) Display
6. Email (and notifications)

That is pretty much it for the possible sources (or more conventionally, "channels") of traffic to your site.

You will find a similar model inside Google Analytics:

screenshot from Google Analytics left sidebar menu: Acquisition, All Traffic, Channels

Google Analytics Acquisition section has, at its broadest categorization, 8 default channel groupings

Google Analytics default channel groupings are as follows:

screenshot from Google Analytics help, showing channel titles as follows: Direct; Organic Search; Referral; Email; Paid Search; Other Advertising; Social; Display

It is up to you how you categorize your traffic channels but the essential point is, "it has to come from somewhere"!

Why start with "0. Magic"??

The zero-th channel is noted here as "Magic" because that is all you are relying on, if you don't have concrete plans and resources for one or more of the real-life channels.

Magic is all too commonly the default imagination/hope of website owners before they have begun to think about where traffic will come from and why.

If you assumed that building a website also means it sucks in torrents of traffic, this is magical thinking.

If you talk about "launching" your new website in terms of just switching it live, and then there are lots of people looking at it, then this is magic thinking.

If you've been saying things along the lines of "we haven't got resources to promote the website at the early stages, so we'll have to improvise", then this is magic thinking.

Basically if you ascribe to any kind of "if we build it, they will come" assumptions, then your traffic source is magic. We really, really wish you luck with it, but in all likelihood it will turn out to be imaginary / non-existent.

Marketers are not magic

An important point about ruling out magic traffic is that marketers are not magic.

That is, someone who has marketing in their job title, or (worse) does not have it in their title but is assigned to "do marketing and worrever"... is not going to be able to wave a magic wand and make it rain.

Hiring a marketing guru, marketing ninja, marketing rock star, elite growth hacker, or multiple-beard-award-winning disruptive digerati... still doesn't mean they do magic.

Effective marketers are going to be doing work and expending resources gaining traffic through one or more of the channels 1-6 above.

The more resources given, and the more knowledgeable/experienced/empowered your marketers are, the more effective your marketing will be in the 6 channels, and the greater potential to be able to work in more than one channel at the same time.

Conversely, the less resources available, the less you are going to be able to do effective work to acquire traffic.

Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin

It is currently a common strategy mistake for small businesses and startups to assume all channels in marketing have to be covered.

This is sometimes talked about as "multi-channel marketing". It makes complete sense with large corporate marketing budgets and full time agencies and departments cooperating on complex integrated campaigns. But for most small and medium sized businesses, trying to do lots of different types of online marketing at the same time just spreads your resources too thin.

  • It is OK if you don't do anything about SEO
  • It is OK if you don't do any PR
  • It is OK if you don't do anything in social media
  • It is OK if you don't do email marketing
  • It is OK if you don't blog or produce content
  • It is OK if you don't advertise at all

The only thing that is not OK is if you do nothing at all in any area!

Doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that is more likely to result in worse overall results than spending the same resources focusing on doing fewer things more intensively.

Just because you can do lots of things online that seem market-y and just because marketers talk about their pet topics, doesn't mean that everyone is doing all of them, or that any certain practice will be relevant or accessible to your business at all.

How To Choose Where To Focus

The following is a simplified way for you to ask questions about your online marketing status and business type, to see where you should focus.

It is just one set of opinions (from us) but hopefully can get you thinking.

Even if you don't agree, the takeaways are that (i) magic isn't a strategy; (ii) you don't necessarily have to try doing everything; (iii) the choice of channels/tactics depends on your business, so not all channels/tactics will make sense.

Download the decision flow chart

KnowledgePower Website Marketing Strategy Flowchart 2015 09 - thumb

The images below are taken from our flow chart: download it in png here.

This flow chart is licenced CC BY-SA 4.0 meaning you are welcome to re-share it and adapt provided you attribute knowledgepower.com / @knowledgepowers as the author, and share alike.

QUESTION ONE: what is the purpose of our website?


This question helps you assess what the primary role of your website is: either serving existing customers, or drawing in and converting new customers.

Serving existing customers is probably always going to be part of any online presence, but it is not necessarily one and the same site and presentation for existing customers vs new customers. In other words you may need to define your web properties differently by audience.

This is also an important realization for primarily digital-delivery businesses: that the delivery or service mechanism ... the software and content and platform... are not the same thing as a new-customer marketing platform... and not the same thing as having a marketing strategy for bringing in new traffic.

Assuming most businesses wish to bring in new customers, and so need marketing to bring traffic to the website, we move to the next question:

QUESTION TWO: are we already getting lots of traffic?


If you already receive substantial traffic from organic search, referring websites, or brand recognition in your market... then it usually makes sense to look into that and try to improve it... instead of heading off in completely new marketing directions.

This is the scenario in which a focus on SEO work makes most sense: where your site is already established and living off organic traffic. Understand it better and improve on it.

However, if your site is new or has not got its own 'automatic' streams of traffic yet, then there are more obvious places to focus your resources.

This takes us on to the social media question:

QUESTION THREE: do you have what it takes to do well in social media?


Our key assertion here is that social media marketing is not for every business.

A quick acid test is to ask whether it is meaningful to talk about your brand's fans. A music label: yes, has fans. Accounting software: not so much.

Social media marketing can only work well if all of the following conditions are true:

  • who you are and/or what you do are intrinsically interesting to your customers
  • there is plenty of content that can be produced and shared which is relevant
  • in some ways you know how you are going to connect topic interest with your commercial goals
  • the people inside your business, who are subject matter experts, living and breathing your brand topics, are motivated and empowered to get involved non-stop in producing that content
  • your organization has the organizational capability to plan and execute what is done in social media with it remaining commercially purposeful AND faithful to the audience interests

If not "yes" to all the above, then move on in the flow chart:

QUESTION FOUR: what kind of advertising?

At this point we have ruled out the possibilities that you don't care about traffic or that you already have promising streams of search or referral traffic to optimize, and we have also ruled out that your organization is likely to win in social media.

This means the only way for people to hear about you, and come to your website, is for you to pay for the attention. There are lots of ways to advertise, and of course not all of them are online.

Almost all forms of advertising are "Display" meaning your message/brand/link placed in 3rd party contexts.

"Search" is a special type of advertising because of the very specific context in which your ad appears. But it's all a spectrum of relevance.


Our flow chart suggests one approach to deciding whether or not to focus on Search advertising, which is up-front considerably more expensive than Display advertising. Namely, do you expect to be able to convert visitors from search or at least capture them as a lead? Because if not, then you are going to need more repeat views and a longer educational type of advertising where you warm people up to the solution you are offering.

The most straightforward way to look at that question is to consider whether your product/service is a specific solution to a specific want/problem/need. If either the want/problem/need on the customer's side, or the product/service offer on your side, are not very specific and matching up to each other, then it is going to be challenging getting people to take action straight from landing on your site from a search click. The connection between the search and your offer is in the eyes of your customer: so there are always ways to communicate this better. Hence landing page improvement is a considerable part of the investment in advertising, as well as the direct costs.

Side note: it is possible to run search ads with a kind of display mentality. For example you may want to capture visitors on more informational terms, and bring them to your (hopefully helpful) content, in order to expose them to your brand and warm them up to your commercial offering. It is important to be aware if are doing this, as your expectations for conversion and these visitors sticking around on your site can't be the same as if it is a simple "I want to buy X" --> "we are a top seller of the best X, buy X here now".

The degree of connection between the user's search intent and your commercial offering, is what determines how well search advertising will work for you. Generally speaking it will have to work (connect) really well for you to see sustainable ROI (aka the Holy Grail).


  • Recognize the options for acquiring traffic for your website
  • Magic is not a marketing option
  • Assess your strengths and suitability for different types of marketing work
  • Consider strongly prioritizing one type of marketing work
  • Don't waste resources doing marketing half-heartedly or attempting things you can't sustain as serious campaigns
  • Don't bother at all with new marketing areas if you already have traffic/awareness sources that are working and can be improved

And finally: for new websites or businesses without much existing web traffic, in the vast majority of cases your digital marketing strategy is a question of advertising resources and tactics, not SEO or social media.


Further Reading


About Us

KnowledgePower is a digital marketing agency in Hampshire, UK -- focusing primarily on pay-per-click advertising. Our advice is biased towards PPC as your marketing focus 🙂

You are encouraged to research your digital marketing options. Our caveats: nobody can promise you fast and cheap results in SEO. Magic isn't a marketing tactic. Any marketer or agency should be able to explain clearly which channels they are working on. If the strategy is "multi channel" then you ought to discuss why that is supposedly better than focusing your finite resources.