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The Cyclical Nature of Search Engine Referrals

Search referrals ebb and flow based on time of week and time of year

Using a keyword research tool like Google Trends or, one can see the seasonality in search term popularity. For example, as one might expect, gourmet chocolate related searches peak at the holidays, as well as around Valentine's Day and Easter.

The ebbing and flowing of searcher activity is also evidenced in your website stats. Search referred traffic will drop in the low season, unsurprisingly. But would you have expected to see the relative share of each search engine to change depending on the time of year?

Well that's what Enquisite has found by crunching search engine referral data from three highly-trafficked (i.e. millions of transactions in last 6 months) U.S. based sites.

Although Enquisite's CEO Richard Zwicky declined to name the three client sites, he elaborated that the sites are extremely attractive to students, yet used by the general population at large; students would use this type of site for research, whereas everyone else for more general learning.

A composite look at those three sites (see figure below, generated by Enquisite's search analytics tool) shows a clear drop in search referrals as we headed into the summer, when secondary school activities come to an end. Notice that Google's percentage of referrals drops more than the other engines' do. That makes sense considering that the population of Google users tend to be made up of students and researchers, more so than on the other engines. So, as the student population goes offline on school breaks, Google referred percentages are more greatly affected. Zwicky confirmed "Yahoo's numbers are not growing in terms of the number of search queries performed; they simply are shrinking much, much less rapidly that Google." Notice also the cyclical nature of weekend traffic. The regularly spaced downward ticks in the Google line correlate with the weekends, when students go offline. If you're curious about the drop in January-February traffic, that was related to the site overhauls that were re-launched in that time period (i.e. lots of 301 redirects at that time). Zwicky postulates that: ·

  • The data seems to indicate that more home computers are set to default to Yahoo, perhaps due to the strength of Yahoo mail, Flickr, etc.
  • Students coming home for the holidays are not using their computers the same way. This may indicate that at home people use their computers differently from at work.
  • We've noted similar trends at major holidays during the year. At Thanksgiving, the trend in the 7 days leading up to the holiday mirrors what's occurred through the entire month of June. This quick drop reflects the hard date on which the holiday exists, whereas for students, the year, and exams end at different periods.
  • Based on holiday information and trends (see this blog post), the appearance that Google's customer base is skewed towards students is both good news and bad news for Google, and may help explain why many advertisers have noted that conversion rates from Yahoo! And MSN are higher. Google still sends more traffic than anyone else. This is good news for Google, as it is most likely that these users will continue to be Google users; their preferences being set as youths. One could argue that this is also bad news, as it indicates that their loyalty may not be permanent; perhaps increased penetration for gmail and other Google products will diminish this effect?
  • It will be interesting to look at conversion rates during the summer, and to note if the rates from the big three are more similar when school is out.
graph of search referred traffic
Richard Zwicky of Enquisite