GA4 Reporting Series: Referral Traffic in GA4

GA4 Reporting Series: Referral Traffic in GA4

Referral traffic comprises website visitors coming from links on other sites. It can be viewed in the acquisition report or Explorations in detail

By: Mussarat Nosheen | 9 mins read
Published: Oct 16, 2023 7:58:44 AM | Updated: Jun 12, 2024 01:50:02 AM

Making all-out marketing efforts but forgetting your good friends sending traffic your way? Not the best of approaches is it?

We are talking about referral traffic, an important channel for many businesses. 

Referral traffic in GA4 helps businesses realize the, uh friends, no partners, or relevant business that helps increase visits to your websites.

It is a considerably important channel and GA4 helps you analyze it at various levels to enhance your profitability. 

What is Referral Traffic?

The segment of your website traffic that comes to your site from a link or domain not associated with your Google Analytics 4 account is termed referral traffic.

People visit websites through various sources. They type the address directly into the URL or search on Google (organic), and click through ads on social media or other venues. 

But none of these qualify as referral traffic because all of these sources are associated with your GA 4 property via the UTM tags. 

They might have some link to referral traffic but more on that later. 

Referral Traffic in GA4

So, what is referral traffic? 

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As businesses develop, they build a rapport with other businesses. Among other things, it translates into getting referrals on other websites, blogs, social media posts, and more.

Sources of referral traffic can include but are not limited to;

  • Partner websites
  • Blogs
  • News items
  • Social Media

It means that these other businesses mention the website in question on these platforms and add a link to their website. 

When people click through these links to arrive at a website, GA4 logs them into the referral traffic channel. 

Where to Find Referral Traffic in GA4?

While it may not make sense for relatively new businesses to explore their referral traffic, it is an essential measure for established websites. 

The latter have sufficient business terms and market influence to warrant referrals and therefore can drive significant traffic from them. 

Let us help you understand where you can find referral traffic in GA4.

Overview of GA4 interface

Before we discuss the where, how, and what of the referral traffic in GA4, let us briefly go over the Google Analytics interface. 

On the GA4 Homepage, you will find four icons in the vertical menu bar on the left.

  • Home - It is the GA4 homepage and displays summary cards of;
    • Real-time user acquisition report
    • User acquisition report
    • Traffic acquisition report
    • Engagement report (page title views) 
    • Demographic report
    • Insight (report card)
  • Reports - it is further divided into a variety of reports measuring the channels through which users arrive, their engagement, conversion, and ones that return after conversion for more.
    • Acquisition Reports - learn more about acquisition reports here. 
    • Engagement Reports
    • Monetization Reports
    • Retention Report
  • Explorations - It allows analysts to play around with their data to gain better insights about their users and conversions. They can choose from predesigned templates;

Or opt to build a custom report from scratch with a Blank report

  • Advertising - It enables businesses to assess the performance of their marketing campaigns based on different attribution models and also the contribution of various touchpoints to the conversion paths. 

Acquisition Report

You find the earliest indication of the referral traffic in the acquisition report. 

Depending on whether you appreciate the User Acquisition report or the Traffic Acquisition report, you can scroll down on either report to find users acquired through channels.

To see the users acquired via Referral you can;

  • Scroll down on the table First user (user acquisition) or Session (traffic acquisition) until you reach the channel termed referral
  • Type referral in the search bar of the table to find the data
  • Change the default dimension to source/medium to find the websites that show referral to be their medium
  • Type referral in the search bar of the table to find all the domain names referring to your website
  • Add the dimension “Landing page + Query string” in the table to find the pages that receive users from the referral websites

Find referral traffic in the Acquisition report in GA4

Explorations 

You can also find out about the referral traffic in Explorations;

  • Click Create New report
  • In the Variables menu choose Source and the same in Rows in the Settings menu
  • Choose “Event count” in the metrics in the Variables
  • In Filters (Settings menu) opt for “Session default channel grouping”, choose filter type “contains” and type “Referral”

Following these steps will leave you with a Referral Report that you may return to in the future as well. 

You can use the information in the report to focus your attention on the referral pages bringing the most traffic. 

You may add metrics like conversions, revenue, and engaged sessions to find the most profitable referrals. 

How to Find the Referral Path?

One of the things Universal Analytics users will miss in Google Analytics 4 is the Referral Path. It helps businesses understand the exact URL that drives traffic to their website. 

But with updates in Google’s privacy rules, the feature does not appear in GA4

Still, businesses want to learn which external pages drive traffic to their websites. 

There could be several pages on a single partner website that users click to arrive at your website. You need a detailed breakdown to find out the ones working best for you. 

Let us find out how you can find out the referral path in GA4. 

Find Referral Path through Google Search

Using Google search to look up your referral path may not be an ideal solution, but something you can consider. 

We have discussed viewing the referrals in the First user (User acquisition) or Session (Traffic Acquisition) table in the Acquisition reports. 

And refining the results with the addition of the dimension  “Landing Page + Query String”.

We will go about finding the referrer URL from the Landing page + Query string;

  • Copy the string you wish to examine further, paste it into the Google search bar
  • Apply the filter for its associated web domain by typing site: site domain (given in the table) 
  • Next, scan the Search Engine Results Page to find the page with the outbound link to the page appearing in the referrals in GA4
  • Individually open and inspect the links you suspect. In Elements search for the text used to run the search on Google you will find the desired URL (if it is there)

Find Referral Path in Explorations in GA4

You can find a way around to still see the referral path on your website in Explorations. 

Method 1

To create a referral path report;

  1. Create a Blank report in Explorations and name it Referral Path Report
  2. In the dimensions section import Page referrer, Event name, and Session default channel group
  3. Import the metric Event count, add “Page referrer” to the rows, and “Event count” to Values
  4. Go to Filters to include “Sessions_start” events; 
    • Choose “contains” while adding the Event name “Session_start
    • For Page referrer choose 
    • “does not contain” for your domain
    • “does not match regex” “^\s*$” (for removing empty rows)
  5. Select the number of rows you wish to see in Show rows
  6. For additional insight, add metrics such as;
    • Conversions 
    • Purchases
    • Revenue

Once set up, you will see the Referral Path Report where you can find the links driving traffic (or other metrics, if chosen) to your website. 

Method 2

Alternatively, you can create a Referral Path Report in Explorations by opting for a different set of dimensions and metrics.

  • Import the dimensions “Page referrer” and “Landing Page + Query String”; and the metric “Views
  • To remove page referrers from search engines and blank values for the unrecorded referrers
  • Go to Filters select “Landing page + Query strong”, and set the “does not exactly match” type to “(note set)”
  • Add another filter  by selecting “Page referrer” and setting it to “does not contain” for your domain name
  • Repeat to add filters for “.google”, “.bing” and any other search engine of concern for “Page referrer
  • Finally, add the filter for removing empty spaces by choosing “does not match regex” and typing “^\s*$
  • Use Show rows to select the number of rows you wish to see in the report.

Creating Referral Traffic Report in GA4

If referrals are considerably important for a business, it can be quite the hassle, having to go to Explorations every single time to view referrals. 

Create a Referral Traffic Report in GA4 instead;

  • Go to Reports, and from there go to Library 
  • Create a new report and choose the template “Traffic Acquisition
  • Except for “Session source” remove all the other dimensions
  • Add the “Session Default Channel Group” filter and include “Referral” there
  • Save the report and name it “Referral Traffic Report”
  • Finally, add it to “Life Cycle” in the Reports section and republish “Life Cycle”.

Now, you can access your referral stats more conveniently. Play around with your data by adding the relevant metrics and filters.

How to Remove Unwanted Referral Traffic?

Not all of the referral traffic showing up in your reports is useful. Some of the data flowing in does not help anyone and has to be removed. 

Unwanted Referral Traffic

Here are the types of referral data that you would want to remove;

  • Self Referral - the ones generated when a user goes from one page of your website to another or one domain to another sub-domain
  • Third-party websites - these are the links users seamlessly go to when performing tasks like making a payment through an external link integrated into your system
  • Spam - spammers and bots in action 

Go to Data streams in Admin in to remove unwanted referrals in GA4

Removing Unwanted Referral Traffic

Let us explore the options to tidy up your referral traffic report. 

Auto Self-referral Exclusion

The only thing you need to do to remove self-referral is to set up Google Analytics 4 properly. 

You can do so by following these steps;

  • Go to the Admin section in Google Analytics 4
  • Click Data Streams, then the listed streams one by one
  • Web stream details will open up
  • Scroll down and click on Configure Tag Settings
  • In the Configurations tab of the opening window, click Show All settings
  • Scroll down and click Configure Your Domains

Doing so will enable GA4 to stop considering your domains for future reports.

List Unwanted Referrals on Google Tag

Besides the domains and subdomains of the website, you also wish to remove the third-party websites such as the ones used for online payments or partner websites.

Remove the unwanted referrals by following the steps below;

  • Go to Admin, then Data Streams
  • Then go to Web Streams and click Configure Tag Settings
  • Click List unwanted referrals
  • Select the Match Type 
    • Referral domain contains
    • Referral domain begins with
    • Referral domain ends with
    • Referral domain exactly matches
    • Referral domain matches RegEx
  • Enter the domain identifier under Domain
  • To add more domains click Add condition
  • Save the conditions

List unwanted referrals on Google Tag

Remember 

Configuring your domains or removing unwanted referrals will only work on future reports. Historic data will appear without any changes in the past reports. 

Why Am I Not Seeing Referral Traffic in GA4?

Small Date Range 

You may not be seeing any referral traffic because there was not any traffic for the given date range

Adjust the date range by clicking on the date at the right corner of the Acquisition report. Increase the date range in the drop-down calendar to find referral traffic. 

Lack of Backlinks

Another reason why you do not see any referral traffic is that your website is too new to have gathered enough backlinks

The backlinks that you do have are not the right ones and therefore unable to drive traffic to your website. 

Go to Google Search Console and explore the backlinks to your website. If nothing shows up there, you won’t see any results in referrals.

Modified Channel Groups 

For marketers looking for insights into their data by modifying their channel groups, referral channels may not populate correctly.

It's because the newly created rules apply in a very broad context to the referrals

You can find a way around this by generating a full report with the modified channel group and opting for source/medium dimensions expanded to maximum rows. 

Download the report and examine it closely to find any referrals. 

What is the Importance of Referral Traffic?

We have discussed the referrals at length, but why is referral traffic so important? 

Measures the Effectiveness of Content Marketing 

When businesses create content that informs, educates, engages, and nourishes their audiences, they establish credibility

Eventually earning them backlinks from other relevant businesses or partners. The right backlinks drive traffic to the website. 

Analyzing the referral traffic helps businesses assess the content strategies that work. 

This way businesses can optimize their content marketing strategies to get the most out of the backlinks. 

Understand Valuable Referrals

Referral traffic tells you the backlinks bringing most of the traffic to the website. Go one step further and study the user journey in GA4 in Explores. 

It will help you find out the backlinks that end up converting and if you have an e-commerce store, bringing revenue. 

With this information by your side you can you can focus your efforts on the backlinks generating the most conversions and revenue. 

Maybe even enter into a partnership with them to increase revenues. 

Popular Landing Pages for Referral Traffic

As you scroll to the right in the acquisition report or the one generated in Explorations, you will find landing pages where most of the referral traffic is landing. 

Once you find that out, you can optimize those landing pages to provide better service quality and enhance the customer experience. 

Compare Referral Traffic With Traffic From Other Channels

Referral traffic is unique in that the users do not respond to any advertisements or actively seek you.

It can be very useful to study the differences between the numbers, engagement rate, and conversions coming from other channels and referrals. 

Use the engagement score to design your future marketing strategies and resource optimization to get the most benefit. 

Identify Spam

Despite security measures like firewalls, and GA4 filters against bot spam spammers can get creative. 

It can mess up your referral traffic stats as well. 

But analyzing the referral traffic closely helps you point out such backlinks and makes it easy for you to add to your exclude domain list.

Conclusion

Referral traffic in GA4 refers to the visitors coming from links on other websites, blogs, or social media not associated with a website’s domains. 

It can be accessed in a few ways. In the Acquisition Reports, you can find referrals in the channels, in the detailed acquisition report

There analysts can find more insights by typing “referral” in the search bar of the tabular report and choosing source/medium as the dimension. 

Although the report is available for both User Acquisition (event data) and Traffic Acquisition (session data), most prefer the latter. 

One can also go to Explorations and play around with the data by importing “Page referrer”, “Session default channel group”, “Event Name” dimensions, and the “Event count”  Variable. 

Another way to create a similarly useful report is to import the “Page referrer” and “Landing Page + Query String” and the relevant metrics and values. 

These methods require some effort every time at the end of the marketing analyst to move around the data. One can also create a “Referral Traffic Report” and publish it to the “Life Cycle” to be able to come back and view results every time. 

You may need to remove unwanted referral traffic for your domain, and unwanted referrals like partner websites, payment websites, and spam.  

It can achieved by Configuring Your Domains and Configuring Tag Settings

Sometimes referrals are not visible because the website does not have any referral traffic, does not have referrals for the selected date range, and modifications in channel groups. 

But why do you go to so much trouble for referral traffic

Because it helps you assess the success of your marketing efforts, identify valuable domains bringing the most conversions, see what works, and identify spam backlinks. 

Do you like what you read? Learn more about Digital Analytics on our blog here.