User behaviour Web metrics

Which social web platforms create the most return visitors to our website?

I’m in Europe right now doing a slew of web analytics health checks, workshops and evaluations to help various institutions are get the most out of the their digital initiatives in a rapidly constricting financial environment. Everyone is rushing to figure out which initiatives are performing better for them than others – especially as decisions need to be made as to which ‘experiments’ are worth continuing and which have been ‘learning experiences’.

In several workshops so far the ‘return visitor’ has been highlighted as a valuable key user of digital resources. Return visitors, the argument goes, are more likely to be engaged with the organisation (and the ‘brand’), and also more likely, where geographically possible, to engage with the institution offline as well as online. And, at a time where we are all tweaking our digital content strategies, design and interfaces, they are also the visitors with whom we can measure the relative effectiveness of techniques.

And so one of the questions raised more than once has been – “which, out of Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter” – is best at turning casual visitors into return visitors?

Now obviously the intentions of visitors who come in from these third-party sites is going to differ (not to mention the difficulties in accurately tracking visitors from Twitter), but we’re interested in the broad patterns.

I did some digging through six months (March to August) of Powerhouse data and this is what I found.

Unsurprisingly Organic search generates 72.34% of site visitation. 20.36% of this traffic are return visitors.

Direct traffic (browser bookmarks, typing the URL, etc) generates 13.88% of site visitation. 16.05% of this are return visitors. Interestingly this skews low because of the inclusion of several very popular educational resources in curriculum kits – students follow a very task-oriented link given by their teacher and don’t look around or come back.

Third party referring sites (people following links from other websites) as a whole generate 13.21% of site visitation. 20.36% of this are return visitors.

So let’s break down those top referring sites and look at traffic coming in from Wikipedia, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. None of these are generating enormous volumes of traffic but there are significant differences between them.

Site % of total visits % repeat
Wikipedia 0.63% 11.95%
Flickr 0.28% 42.64%
Facebook 0.49% 32.74%
Twitter 0.18% 34.50%
All referrers 13.21% 20.36%
Overall (100%) 20.60%

Of the four sites we are interested in, Wikipedia delivers the most traffic. However it brings the lowest percentage of return visitors at only 11.95%. This is well below the site average and also well below the average for all referring sites.

Facebook is next and 32.74% of these are return visitors performing well above the site average. Flickr brings the most return visitors at 42.64% whilst Twitter brings also performs well at bringing return visitors at 34.50%.

So ranked in order of traffic volume Wikipedia is a clear winner but in terms of those valuable return visitors the list transforms with Flickr bringing the proportionally more returning visitors.

Flickr is delivering nearly 3.5x the return visitor proportions than Wikipedia and the two social communication platforms Facebook and Twitter, almost 3x as much.

Thinking about why Wikipedia performs so poorly as a source of return traffic, it is clear that there is a difference in the user intentions. A visitor coming in from Wikipedia is likely coming for additional information on a subject or topic. But it looks like there is minimal brand association with that information retrieval goal – they get the answer and don’t explore further at a later date. This is what I’d call the ‘trivia quiz’ visitor.

I looked at which Wikipedia articles were sending the most traffic and the top five were a little unexpected. Wikipedia articles in order of volume of traffic were on Thrust bearing, Easy edges, Powerhouse Museum, Crumpler, Liberty bodice and a long tail of several hundred others. Other than ‘Powerhouse Museum’ this traffic is the equivalent of the casual visit traffic we also receive via the long tail of search – but is less likely to return to the site later.

Informational websites deal increasingly with entirely commoditised content, and this throws up the issue of where to dedicate resources.

The effort expended in the more social web platforms – social communication platforms (Facebook, Twitter) and social object platforms like Flickr – is working to create more valuable return visitors than the informational sites like Wikipedia and organic long tail search.

I was a bit surprised by this result so I narrowed it down a bit and looked at only traffic from Sydney. Here’s the results.

Site % total Sydney visits % Sydney repeat
Wikipedia 0.35% 26.87%
Flickr 0.20% 32.31%
Facebook 0.82% 46.43%
Twitter 0.16% 37.34%
All referrers 12.81% 34.09%
Overall (100%) 34.18%

Sydney-only and Wikipedia performs much better in terms of generating return visitors – but is greatly outpaced as a traffic source by Facebook. Here we find that it is clearly the social communication platforms that are generating the repeat visitation as well as the volumes.

Of course the overall volumes here are very low so there is a fair degree of statistical error creeping in but this is something I’ll be keeping an eye on – I’m certainly interested in why Wikipedia is creating proportionally more repeat visitors in Sydney than globally and whether this correlates to some notion of ‘brand awareness’.

More questions than answers.