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Referrer Data, Explained: 10 Reasons Why It Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

Data is king – however sometimes trying to resolve your data across several reporting platforms can be a challenge. Part of this equation involves looking at the referrer to determine the source of where your traffic is coming from. If you know where your audience originated, you can leverage that information to get higher engagement. However, referring traffic is not as reliable as you may think.

Let’s start from the beginning: how was referral traffic initially tracked across the web? The HTTP Referer [sic] is an HTTP header field that identifies the address of the webpage that was linked from. Back in the early days of the web, a misspelling occurred (originally misspelled “referer” instead of referrer) which has caused some issues moving forward.  Web developers now must use the misspelling “referer” to look for traffic. The referrer header is meant to pass information about the previous web page to the new web page, so if a user goes from Page A to Page B, then the URL from Page A will be passed in the header, and you will know that the traffic came from Page A.

Now that we know what the referrer is, the next question is why aren’t you getting a complete picture of referring traffic?

Here are 10 reasons why your dashboard might not capture referrer analytics:

1. The browser doesn’t always provide it. If the browser doesn’t provide it, there’s simply no way capture it.

2. Links from https will never send a referrer to a http webpage. For most https-to-http requests, the referrer details are blocked.

3. All links that use JavaScript’s “window.open” method lose all referrers in Internet Explorer (IE). Pro Tip: Use Chrome or Firefox instead!

4. Flash applications won’t send referrers in IE. See Pro Tip above. 

5. Mobile apps won’t send referrers. Smartphone apps are innately unable to pass “referring page” information to your site analytics. Therefore be aware that direct traffic stats will be inflated.

6. Users have “no-referrers” enabled. Users can essentially ‘turn off’ the ability to pass referral information when they are browsing the web through their browsers.

7. Links that are embedded in a PDF, Word Doc or other non-HTML files will not send referrers. They are not recorded as website referrers but as separate applications.

8. Links that came from an email or instant messaging will not send referrers.

9. Links that are typed directly will not send referrers. These are links that are typed directly into a browser, or copied and pasted from another source.

10. Users using a VPN or firewall will not send referrers.

Now that you know referrers are unreliable, how DO you understand where your traffic is coming from?

The best way is to make sure you use tracking parameters within your url.

Tracking parameters, most commonly known as UTM codes when using Google Analytics, are tags you append to the end of a destination URL so that you can track clicks on that link in your analytics dashboard. By using tags like "source," "medium," and "campaign," you can answer key questions about your traffic without relying on referrer data. 

To learn more about UTM codes and best practices, head over to my colleague Abby Nelson's blog post on How to Use UTM Codes.

What if I don’t use Google Analytics?

Tracking codes are not exclusive to Google Analytics- your data analytics platform of choice will have its own way of adding tracking parameters to your links. Understanding your platform’s tracking methods is key to unlocking insights, so make sure you understand the parameters and use them in your destination URL. You will never have to rely on referrers again!

What if I don’t have an analytics Platform?

You are in luck! BudURL includes advanced analytics within the link management dashboard. BudURL reports raw click data for every link with only two exceptions: known bots are filtered (meaning they self-identify), and data center IP addresses are filtered.  BudURL data is as close to human click traffic as possible- so your team can slice and dice the data however you see fit.

Want to learn more about how BudURL can integrate directly with your analytics platform to help give you the whole analytics picture? 

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