Google Analytics 4 Referral Traffic – The Complete Guide

Which websites generate traffic to yours? The Google Analytics 4 referral traffic report has the answer. Follow this guide to learn where you can find them, exclude sources and (partially) fix the annoying problem of not seeing the full referral path in GA4. Finally, you will also learn how to use referral traffic data to your advantage. Let’s dive in…

What is referral traffic in Google Analytics 4?

GA4 considers referral traffic as visits to your website that result from a click on a link, button or other elements from a domain that is not associated with your GA account. Direct visits, organic search and paid traffic are excluded from referral traffic.

Visually presented, referral sources are:

Referral traffic sources in Google Analytics 4

Let’s switch to GA4.

LEARN HOW TO IDENTIFY AND MEASURE REFERRAL TRAFFIC

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GET OUR FREE SOP ON TRAFFIC ACQUISITION REPORT IN GA4

Where can you find referral traffic in GA4?

In GA4, you can find your referral traffic by navigating to Report > Acquisition > Traffic Acquisition.

By default, GA4 only shows your top 5 most popular traffic channels in the charts.

Your traffic acquisition report will look different, but for this site, referral traffic is quite a big deal:

GA4 traffic sources grouped in channels

Nice, unless you have no referral traffic at all…

Why do I not see referral traffic in GA4?

When your GA4 traffic acquisition report doesn’t show referrals at all, you can do one of the following things:

1. Change the date range of your report.

2. Check in your Google Search Console if you have backlinks. For new sites, that may take a while, but if your site doesn't have any baclinks at all, there will be no referral visits in your reports.

3. You can wait. Even if others sites point to yours, people may not click on links. Besides, referring sites may experience technical issues.

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Now you know where to find your referral channels, it’s time to dig deeper.

Which websites drive traffic to your website?

To see on which website your visitors were before a click landed them on your site, you need to change the Session default channel grouping filter of the Traffic Acquisition Report into Source or Source / Medium.

Change the default channel group settings:

Into this:

The Source Medium filter shows you all your referrals

Now you have a list of all domains on which visitors clicked through to your site.

Cool?

The answer depends:

  1. Yes, knowing your referral domains is cool.
  2. Sort of. Referral traffic can contain domains you don’t want / need in your reports.
  3. OMG noooooooooo! Where is the full referral path? Universal Analytics showed it… (but it also stopped doing it).

However, this is a way to get the full referral URL if you're a little creative and this video will show you how to do it in less than 2 minutes: 

Let’s first see why you absolutely want to exclude certain traffic sources from your reports.

3 use cases of excluding referral traffic

Some referral traffic sources can seriously mess up your data. I split the sources into 3 different categories:

  1. Self-referral: visits from your own (sub)domain(s)
  2. Useful 3rd-party websites that make your website work
  3. Spam traffic

#1: automatically exclude self-referral traffic in GA4

Self-referral traffic are visits from people who are already on your site and explore other pages on it. Fortunately, GA4 automatically excludes these visits from referral traffic.

Unfortunately, if you don't setup GA4 properly across your subdomains, tracking of self-referrals turns into nightmare:

If, for instance, you click on the link to our article on how to track clicks in Google Analytics 4, this will not show up as referral traffic in our GA4 account.

The same goes for clicks from / to your sub-domains, as for our own website:

If you have multiple domains, you need to configure your GA4 account to track cross-domains to exclude self-referral traffic.

I will show you how to do this below, but don't skip the next part.

#2: manually excluding useful 3rd-party domains from referral traffic

Websites often communicate with 3rd-party domains. Visitors are sometimes not even aware that they are not on your site. However, GA4 treats this differently.

These examples illustrate how a customer journey may look in reality:

  • From your web shop > Payment gateway provider > back to your ecommerce site.
  • Login > request password reset from an external service > back to your login page.

The list goes on.

Make sure you regularly check your referral report to identify all providers of your website-managed interactions, as Google calls it.

#3: spam traffic in your GA4 reports

Google Analytics is working hard to keep spam traffic out of your GA4 account. Alas, spammers are creative and they try to abuse that one characteristic all marketers have: curiosity.

Don’t visit suspicious referral traffic domains and make sure you exclude these sources from your reports.

This is how you do it…

How to exclude unwanted referrals in GA4?

Unwanted referrals can be spam, your own domains, or website-managed interaction providers. Follow the steps below to exclude visits from these sites from referral traffic.

Step 1: Open the Admin settings in the left bottom of your account, click on Data Streams in the property column. Finally, click on your stream.

Step 2: In the Google Tag section, click on Configure Tag Settings.

Step 3: In the More Tagging Settings screen, click on List Unwanted Referrals.

Step 4: In the More Tagging Settings screen, click on List Unwanted Referrals.

Step 5: Choose your Match Type and fill in the domain

You can choose from 5 types to set up conditions and create your list of unwanted domains:

  • Referral domain contains
  • Referral domain begins with
  • Referral domain ends with
  • Referral domain exactly matches
  • Referral domain matches RegEx: don’t touch this unless you know what you are doing.

Step 6: Click on the blue Save button on top of the screen.

Pro tip: check your referral reports regularly. When needed, add domains to the list of unwanted referrals.

Your GA4 account is set up now.

Let the visitors roll in by clicking on other sites.

When that happens, there is one big problem. You will only see the domains and not know on which web pages your site is linked to…

2 workarounds to find the full referral URLs instead of only domains

As a data-driven marketer, it’s frustrating to not have access to full referral paths.

Trying to find them in Universal Analytics won’t work either. At least, not for recent referral traffic.

universal analytics referrals

Google started hiding the full path of referral traffic for the same reason why cookies may disappear: privacy.

If you are interested in the technical details, you can read this blog post from Google. Alas, the knowledge you will gain from it won’t bring your full referral paths back to your reports.

Any alternative is better than wild guessing, but do not get your hopes up too high when trying the following…

Use Google search to find referral links

This tactic has a low success rate. It will only work if

  • You are good at guessing what words are used on the referring domain to link to your site
  • If Google has indexed the page on the referral site.

Here are the steps:

1. Grab your list of referral sources in GA4.

2. Search in Google for the following: keyword site:domain name

You need to replace keyword and domain name as below:

Try your brand name and alternative spellings.

3. Click on the results.

If luck is at your side, you will be able to spot the exact webpage that contains a link to your site.

But even if you find a page that links to you, another URL on the domain could have generated the referral traffic.

The next option is a more secure and successful way.

Use a Google Alternative

Most analytics tools cannot do what Google Analytics can. The reverse is also true.

In our extensive research of Google Analytics alternatives, we reviewed some specialty tools that can quickly find backlinks to your site, with the full path URL.

You still won’t know which specific page generated traffic to your site. But at least, you now have a list of full URLs that might have generated traffic to your site.

There is one more technique, but this fits better in the next section…

How can you use referral traffic data to your advantage?

Referring websites bring visitors to your website. For free. Analyzing and understanding your referral traffic data is without doubt an important part of successful marketing.

Data is more than numbers and charts. It’s up to you to turn it into results.

The question is then, how do you turn your GA4 referral traffic into actionable steps that can boost your business?

#1 Identify and contact friendly brands that link to your site

GA4 gives you the perfect excuse to start a conversation with other website owners.

You know somebody clicked on another website to yours, but you don’t know the exact web page where that magic happened.

What prevents you from asking this to the website owner?

  • You are not cold selling anything.
  • Instead, you thank them.
  • And ask them politely where the other site has put a link to yours.
  • While you are at it, kindly ask why they decided to link to your website.

A conversation will reveal a lot more about your backlink building strategy than any tool can ever do.

But you need to dive into your data first to discover opportunities.

#2 Measure your referral traffic ROI from your backlinks

Quality backlinks to your site boost your ranking in search results. This leads to more organic traffic.

On the other hand, people who click on your backlinks directly are included in your referral traffic report.

Referrals drive traffic. Backlinks can boost your site’s visibility.

You see where I am getting at?

Your GA4 report gives you a more complete overview of your backlink building efforts.

#3 Better understand your audience and content

Many website owners are reluctant to drive traffic to other websites. If another website is pointing to your content, that is a strong signal.

They must have had two very good reasons to link to you:

  1. Your content is awesome
  2. Your webpage is relevant to the audience of the referring website

Let that sink in a bit.

Ready?

Take time to go through all your referral traffic.

Try to find the exact URL your content was linked to.

Spend time on the website.

Get creative on how you can leverage your referral traffic from the other website. Here are some ideas:

  • Write a guest blog post.
  • Subscribe to their newsletter.
  • Connect on social.
  • Build a strong business relationship.
  • Find similar websites and reach out to them for another backlink.

#4 Compare referral traffic with other sources

Below the charts in your Traffic Acquisition report, you can quickly compare the key metrics of your referral traffic with other traffic channels.

You can click on the elements on the table to change the default order.

When your referral traffic has a high engagement rate, you can rethink your priorities as follows:

  • shift more resources to building more links on similar websites as the one that generated visitors
  • spend less on paid campaigns

The above is an example, but will hopefully inspire you.

Key takeaways: Google Analytics 4 and referral traffic

  • Google Analytics 4 shows you on which domains visitors clicked before they landed on your site.
  • Visits from paid links and organic search are excluded from referral traffic.
  • You can find referral traffic as a source in the Traffic Acquisition report.
  • The default channel grouping in the Traffic Acquisition report is the fastest way to compare the key metrics of referral traffic with other traffic sources.
  • Although GA4 automatically can filter out traffic from your own (cross and sub) domains, you need to check if this is always done properly.
  • You can manually add your own, or domains of 3rd-parties, to the Unwanted referral list to keep your referral report clean.
  • GA4 doesn’t show the full referral path. You can, however, work around this by comparing your referral domains with data from a backlink analytics tool.
  • Use your list of referral traffic domains to build relationships with other websites and better understand your audience and content.

Now it’s time for you to dive into GA4 and identify, analyze and exclude referral traffic sources. Don’t forget to turn your referral data into actions to boost your site. Good luck!

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