How Do The Top Websites Drive Traffic?2020-01-21T19:27:37+00:00

How Do The Top Websites Drive Traffic?

How Do The Top Websites Drive Traffic?

How do the world’s most popular websites acquire their visitors? In each major content vertical, what drives users to the top-performing sites as opposed to their countless competitors?

For companies of every kind and size, these questions have major strategic implications. No business can afford to neglect its web presence, and increasing web traffic is a key focus of most businesses with an online presence. In the pursuit of additional visitors, popular sites can provide a helpful model. By analyzing the sources of their web traffic, we may find a road map to replicate and surpass their success.

In this project, we did precisely that, studying how various sites acquire their web traffic. We then examined the most popular sites of each category, contrasting them with other sites in the same verticals. Our findings illustrate key distinctions between the web’s top sites and those that are smaller or less successful.

In the health and fitness vertical, do the top sites derive a disproportionate degree of traffic from social media? Do the top shopping sites acquire an enviable portion of their visitors from search engines? Which sites attract traffic via links from referring domains?

For answers to these questions and more compelling insights from our analysis, keep reading.

Subjects and Traffic Sources

First, let’s cover some of the methodological details of this project, providing helpful context for all of our subsequent analysis. While the methodology section at the bottom of this page offers a greater degree of detail, here’s a brief overview of our approach:

  • First, we gathered data concerning the sources of web traffic to 450,000 distinct domains.
  • Next, we categorized those domains into various subject matter groups based on Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) categories, such as “Automotive” or “Food and Drink.”
  • Finally, we identified the top 10 percent of sites in each category in terms of total traffic. Doing so allowed us to analyze how the top sites of each category compared to their less-successful competitors or smaller sites in terms of acquiring visitors.

Before we juxtapose the top sites and other domains within each category, let’s look at how the various categories differ from one another overall.

Types of SourcesIn the results above, we found interesting differences in traffic acquisition among major verticals. In most cases, these distinctions relate directly to the subject matter in question and the ways in which users seek and consume various content.

For example, news, weather, and information sites gained a relatively striking percentage of their traffic from social media. This data point speaks to the role of social media platforms as a conduit for news consumption. Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites are key brokers for news content, placing publishers at the whim of these platforms’ algorithms.

In other verticals, search traffic (users clicking through from search engine results) accounted for an especially large percentage of visitors. These categories included automotive, home and garden, and travel sites, which makes good sense given users’ search intent. If you’re looking for the perfect car, couch, or cruise, your hunt is likely to start with a search engine query.

Conversely, sites in the personal finance and business verticals enjoyed a striking degree of direct traffic, which typically results from users typing a web address into their browsers. Indeed, when people review their banking information or customer accounts online, they likely type the URL directly – or allow their browsers to autofill the address they’ve visited previously.

By contrast, domains in the “nonstandard content” category derived the greatest percentage of traffic from referral links from other sites. This vertical includes niche blogs and forums that don’t fit neatly into other verticals: Perhaps many visitors discover them only after poking around online.

The Best vs. the Rest

Next, we compared the most popular sites in each vertical against the others, assessing whether the top domains of various kinds possess distinct traffic patterns.

Comparing top sites to other sites

Across categories, the top sites tended to enjoy a greater percentage of direct traffic than other domains in their respective verticals. The cause of this pattern is clear: Users are more likely to be aware of major sites and, thus, search for them specifically. This direct traffic gap was especially large in certain verticals, including news, weather, and information. Because general trust in media remains low across the country, perhaps users go directly to the few top sources on which they rely.

Additionally, the top sites typically obtained a greater percentage of traffic via links from other domains. In the business vertical, for example, 24 percent of traffic to top sites was referral traffic, whereas the other sites in this category obtained just 14 percent of their traffic in this manner. This dynamic reflects the influence and authority that the top sites command. Other websites treat them as valuable resources, sending visitors their way.

In most verticals, sites outside the top 10 percent gained a greater percentage of traffic from search engine results. But if the majority of users don’t scroll past the first page of search results, how are sites with modest traffic numbers attracting visitors in this manner? For these underdogs, success in search depends on quality and relevance: They can earn eyes by crafting strong content tailored to pertinent topics.

Traffic Drivers, by Subject Matter

Next, we took a deeper dive into traffic sources for various websites, incorporating some of the smaller, more specific website categories included in our research.

Top site categories for traffic sources

When we consider the sites that rely primarily on search traffic, we see the crucial role that search engines play in connecting businesses and customers. For example, auto parts sites gained nearly two-thirds of their traffic from search, likely from shoppers seeking specific parts. Sites concerning tax planning and legal issues gained a similar portion of traffic from search engines, suggesting that accountants and lawyers rely on search traffic to gain customers. These data points underscore the importance of SEO for small and midsize businesses across industries, not just major corporations.

As we noted earlier, sites pertaining to business and personal finance enjoy a relatively large flow of direct traffic. Internet technology and business software sites had high levels of direct traffic, as well, likely from existing customers.

Although social media generally accounted for a smaller portion of traffic, it was a significant source for certain site types. As noted previously, news, weather, and information sites earned an impressive percentage of traffic from social, a product of click-worthy headlines appearing in users’ feeds. Food and drink sites also saw a relatively large flow of traffic from social. For many in the restaurant industry, social platforms can be a key channel to earn buzz and business.

Keyword Contrasts

Keywords represent a crucial element of traffic from search engines: Sites that rank well for a large number of queries naturally attract visitors in greater numbers. In each major content vertical, we studied how many keywords the top sites ranked for as compared to other domains.

Median number of keywords

Generally speaking, the top sites ranked for several times as many keywords as the other domains in their verticals. While some of this difference may be attributable to branded keywords, the overwhelming conclusion is hard to ignore: Powerful domains rank well for a wide array of relevant queries, whereas lesser sites appear for a more limited set of terms. Accordingly, it seems smart keyword strategy is essential to conquering virtually any content category.

This pattern was particularly evident in verticals where search accounted for a relatively small portion of total traffic. In the categories of business and personal finance, where search provided just a third of all visitors, the top sites enjoyed a huge keyword advantage. The same was true for news and shopping domains, where the top sites had massive keyword range despite a relatively low percentage of traffic coming from search.

Furthermore, in some verticals in which search was a major source of traffic, the top sites ranked for relatively few keywords. The median number of keywords for the top law, government, and politics sites, for example, was just 1,865, although search drove a majority of traffic in this vertical. This trend may relate to the focused nature of this vertical. Government agencies, for example, likely devote pages to specific laws and processes in their purview, rather than casting a wide net and ranking for a diverse array of keywords.

Overall, these patterns may seem counterintuitive: In verticals where search drives a large portion of traffic, why would the top sites rank for relatively few keywords? Perhaps in the categories where search matters most, pursuing a focused set of powerful keywords is the most effective approach.

However, small and new businesses shouldn’t necessarily attempt to rank for head keywords that correspond with high search volumes. If your industry is dominated by a few forceful competitors, competing with them on generic, short-tail terms could be an expensive (and ultimately futile) approach. Similarly, targeting a broad array of search terms could spread your time and resources too thin. As our findings make clear, established, high-profile sites are the ones capable of ranking for thousands of keywords simultaneously. Do you really have the capital to compete so broadly?

Instead, small businesses and startups can consider a more focused approach to SEO, identifying long-tail keywords that matter to their particular audiences. By understanding your customer and targeting niche keywords that matter to them, you can gain a healthy stream of highly engaged visitors. Leave the generic keywords to the top sites, and focus on the specific queries where you can rank successfully.

From Insight to Improvement

Our findings affirm the importance of developing traffic acquisition strategies tailored to your particular vertical. The top sites differ significantly in their traffic sources, and no single set of tactics will guarantee an influx of new visitors. In determining your approach, it’s essential to consider the precedent established by leaders in your own industry. We think our results provide a solid starting point.

Moreover, it’s wise to adopt the perspective of people who might benefit from your content. Will your site speak to users seeking specific information? If so, increasing traffic from search could be the ideal linchpin of your strategy. Is your site and audience fueled by eye-catching information and images? Social media may be a particularly vital traffic source.

At Alexa, we provide tools to help marketers navigate these nuanced issues of web and content strategy. Our intuitive tools help you develop an informed and effective approach to traffic growth. From keyword research to content and competitive analysis, we offer a full stack of tools to help you take your site to the top of its category.


Using internal data on website traffic, we looked at 293,835 unique URLs. For the “Types of Sources” graphic, we looked at the 20 largest categories we had within our data. All of the sites’ data were averaged together to determine what the sources of traffic were for each category.To determine if a site was a top site, we looked at all sites within a category and marked the top 10 for that category based on their traffic ranking. We only looked at the 20 largest categories for this to ensure that we had enough records in the top 10 percentile.

For the top categories for each traffic source, we only considered categories with at least 200 records.

Categories were determined using Webshrinker‘s Category API, and only the highest-scoring category was considered. If a site returned multiple categories that were tied, the site was considered to be in each of those categories.

Fair Use Statement

Feel free to share the images found on this page freely. When doing so, please attribute the authors by providing a link back to this page, so your readers can learn more about this project and the related research.