The changing nature of “Organic” traffic

Whichever side of the client/customer relationship you’re on in the digital world, whether you’re giving reports or reading the reports, “Organic” traffic is the most significant data point in all of web traffic analysis. But what exactly is organic traffic? Is it the same as it’s always been? How has it changed since its inception in the late 1990s?

“Organic” traffic definitions

Organic traffic can operate in multiple different contexts and situations, but at its core “organic” traffic means unpaid or unsponsored traffic coming from search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. In certain contexts, organic can simply mean unpaid or “free” traffic. In other contexts, it can mean any traffic from a search engine.

Top view of SEO Search Engine Optimization on black board on blue background

It can also have a more behavioral explanation, denoting a user who has not searched a direct brand or name, and is using a search engine to find something new by using general search terms like “best pizza”. All of these definitions of organic are similar but have small differences depending on the situation in which they’re being discussed. 

Why is organic traffic so significant to digital marketing?

In the ‘90s and ‘00s, it was assumed that if a user already knows the website they are searching for, then they will likely just type in that website directly and not use a search engine — therefore this would mean that leftover users who search on search engines are looking for new information or websites.

That type of “organic” traffic, looking for new services, is the most sought after on the web, since these users are open to new websites, brands, and other information. 

Around this time, search engines were also just starting to show ads alongside their organic search options they showed to users. To differentiate between paid or sponsored ads and non-paid (organic) search results, the term “organic” began to be used to identify traffic that was not paid for.

Browser design is changing the organic search

The nature of organic traffic is changing thanks to mobile and browser design changes. You’ve probably noticed that over the last 5-10 years most browsers on desktop and phones only have one “search bar” or “address bar” instead of two like older browsers. While this is much faster for users, what it can mean is that people will often search for direct brands or sites within the organic search bar. 

Why does this matter? If a user already knows they want to go to, but they just google “Nike” and click on, this traffic shows up as Organic, although it is more behaviorally accurate to call this “direct” traffic, since the user was already searching for Nike and not “athletic shoes” or something related.

This is important because Organic traffic usually means non-branded, new users, but with new browsers, “direct” traffic will now take up a percentage of organic traffic in reports. 

So, what to do about the impact on reporting?

There is nothing wrong about the changing nature of organic traffic, it’s all in how you want to look at and measure your data. If the goal of a particular exercise is to look at New Users who are brand new to your site, just looking at “organic” may not give you the most accurate outlook, since as we explained above some of that organic traffic likely already knew about your brand.

Also, if the goal of a particular exercise is to look at returning/direct users, then some of that traffic might actually be showing up as Organic as well. The key is for your data team and clients to be aware of the significance if and when it matters. 

What are some solutions to the watering down of Organic data?

For those agencies or marketing departments concerned with this trend and looking to increase the accuracy of their reporting, there are a couple of easy solutions. First, Google Search Console data (formerly Google Webmaster Tools), when connected to Google Analytics, can allow for data managers to a segment only the parts of their traffic that comes from non-branded search queries.

This would allow an organization to only consider “organic” traffic to be truly organic and not contain any brand terms or website (.com) searches. Secondly, another (albeit paid) option is from Keyword Hero, a third party company that integrates with Google Analytics and allows for data analysts to connect the keyword searched to the user path across the website. 

Both of these solutions would allow teams to segment their organic traffic and remove the direct/branded searches that are less in the spirit of what “organic” traffic meant — unpaid and unbranded searches for the highest value users on the web: new users searching for new things.