What are the Most Accurate Sources for Website Traffic Data?

Web marketers are locked in a death embrace spiral with 3rd party analytics tools like Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz, and others. Every year I see more people sharing screen reports of traffic estimates from these tools when asking for helping or bragging about how great their SEO strategies are.

These 3rd-party traffic reports are unreliable, highly inaccurate, and the worst-possible examples you can use for proving traffic growth or problems.

Worse, people just look stupid when they use these reports for their own Websites. Unless you’re using a free hosting service that doesn’t provide you with any analytics data at all (and both Blogspot and WordPress, the two largest free hosting services, do provide some basic analytics) you have access to more reliable analytics data than you’ll ever get from the 3rd-party SEO tools.

Despite all their case studies about search visibility or big sites that supposedly lose a lot of traffic after supposed Google updates, these tools are not worth the money you pay for them if you’re relying on them to analyze your traffic for you.

Which are the Best Sources of Website Traffic Data?

Your first choice should always be your own server log files. These files – if collected properly – provide you with all the data you need to understand who is visiting your site, how often, and why.

There is a downside to using server log files for traffic analysis. You must know how to interpret the data. Even if you use a free reporting system like AWStats, you need to understand what the data is showing you. It also helps to be able to block rogue traffic.

Read the Beginner’s Guide to Bad Bots and Rogue Crawlers for help in understanding how to block unwanted traffic.If you compare an AWStats report to, say, a Google Analytics report, you’ll see a very different world from what Google Analytics shows you. Neither tool is perfect but whereas many people prefer the configuration of Google Analytics reports, AWStats has better data.
Personally, I dislike Google Analytics for many reasons, including the fact they use AJAX instead of fast HTML. Their user interface is also very badly designed and awkward to use.You don’t have to rely on AWStats for server-side analysis. There are other log file analyzers. You also have the option of downloading the data and analyzing it either directly in text editors or writing your own tools.

If you practice SEO you should be both familiar and comfortable with scanning server log files for anomalous data. That could be anything from a single IP address hitting only your blog posts to a rogue bot probing your server for CMS logins. 3rd-party reporting systems don’t break out this anomalous activity and they may even be blind to it if the bots are not executing the Javascript.

Your second choice should be a CMS-hosted analytics application. For WordPress users, that comes down to using a tool like the WP Statistics plugin. That’s not the only one.

If you only know or love Google Analytics you will hate WP Statistics, but it’s more accurate than GA. On the other hand, as with Google Analytics you must filter out a lot of bots. WP Statistics in particular allows you to set up filtering rules and you can play with them but it’s still a different reporting universe than Google Analytics. Depending on what you do, these in-application statistics systems can take up a lot of RAM and disk space.

Two advantages of using PHP-based and/or server-side reporting are SPEED and SPEED. Your reports load much faster than the Javascript-based reporting systems and your Website renders faster because those 3rd-party scripts require the browser to connect to other servers on every page load.

Why You Should Be Using Google Search Console and Bing Toolbox

You may not care about Bing’s search referral traffic but as I have said before, what works for Google usually doesn’t work for Bing. If you want to improve your Bing referral traffic (and that includes traffic from services like Amazon’s Echo voice search, DuckDuckGo, and Ecosia), then you need to optimize for Bing.

You won’t find anything that accurately reports the Search Visibility (Impressions) and Search Referral Traffic (Clicks) coming from Google or Bing – except Google Search Console and Bing Toolbox.

You may not like the fact they are aggregating the data into “Average Position” but there is good reason for that. And it’s still better than all the traffic estimates the 3rd-party reporting tools create based on PPC keyword traffic and “rankings”.

Your search rankings change all the time. The “Average Position” you hate so much is the only way your true rankings can be measured. You may rank 1st for someone in Biloxi at the same time you’re ranking 3rd for someone in New York and 2nd for someone in Los Angeles. You need to know what the average positions are so that you understand people are seeing different results all around the world.

And despite their failures to respect your privacy in many ways, the search engines now have legal obligations to protect other people’s privacy in your search reporting tools. Even if they could should you a single fixed search results position they would probably aggregate the data to anonymize the reporting. Yes, there are other ways they could anonymize user data but they are not as reliable as aggregation methods.

The 3rd-party trackers have no hope of properly measuring your search results. They are using Web server IP addresses or leasing proxy IPs from botnet-driven services to fetch search results. Worse, they are only crawling based on pre-selected keywords. 3rd-party ranking tools aren’t showing you the queries your visitors are using – they are showing you the queries that they (the ranking tools) are using. You can’t get much farther from accurate reporting data than that.

Like it or not, only Google Search Console and Bing Toolbox show you the actual queries that their searchers are using to find your sites in their search results. You shouldn’t be using any other tools for analyzing search referral traffic.

NOTE: If you want to analyze traffic from Baidu or Yandex, use their Webmaster dashboards.If a search engine of any type doesn’t provide you with a Webmaster dashboard, don’t substitute a 3rd-party ranking report for data that doesn’t exist.

To improve the accuracy of average position analysis, use single-day reporting windows. Both Bing and Google default to weekly or monthly reporting windows. The numbers for the last 28 or 30 days may look better but if you’re really upset with average position reports then download your data on a daily basis and plot your own trend lines based on daily captures.

If your reports are using data sampling shorten the reporting windows. If your monthly traffic reports indicate the data is sampled then shorten the reporting windows as much as necessary or possible to reduce or eliminate the sampling. You can do this for Google Analytics and other 3rd-party tools, tool.

You also have the option of resetting the reporting window lengths in the dashboards.

I’m not happy about the fact that Google Search Console and Bing Toolbox use Javascript to create their reports but user experience is obviously not a high priority for their teams. Nonetheless, these are the only reliable sources of data (however incomplete) for your search referral traffic.

If you think you can substitute other sources of information for these reports, you’re wrong.

Google Analytics will import your Search Console data. I recommend connecting these accounts when you have the ability to do so. But don’t expect the GA data to match the GSC data. When in doubt, always prefer the GSC data over GA-collected data to analyze your search referral traffic.

Which 3rd-Party Analytics Tools are the Best for SEO?

This is one of those “it depends” questions.

Despite the fact that Google Analytics is so popular with Web marketers, it’s not the only popular 3rd-party tool out there. Also, Google Analytics has been targeted by traffic-faking bots that screw up your analytics report. While you can set up filters these bots are constantly throwing new domains into the mix so your filters will never be complete.

WordPress users should consider using Jetpack analytics. It’s more accurate for overall traffic than Google Analytics because they do a better job of filtering out bot traffic. Jetpack is a robust SEO and marketing plugin that does a lot of things for you, including generating XML sitemap files, social media sharing buttons, related posts widgets, and much more. You can also use Jetpack to verify your WordPress sites with Bing Toolbox, Google Search Console, and a few other services.

I don’t use all of Jetpack’s tools because there are – in some cases – better alternatives. But one thing I do like about Jetpack is the in-site reporting system. It’s fast and light but it does run on Javascript so you must sit there and twiddle your thumbs while it fetches data. Also, some of Jetpack’s links take you to the WordPress.Com site’s Jetpack dashboard. While the remote dashboard provides more data and detail than the blog-internal dashboard, most people don’t need it for everyday traffic analysis.

Our clients use a variety of 3rd-party tools. They all have strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons. As an SEO provider you should not try to force your clients to use your preferred tools. You can explain why you prefer some tools over others, but whatever tools they have been using will have collected (in many cases) a lot of data. If you install Google Analytics, Jetpack, or some other 3rd-party tool on a client site today you’ll have no history to work with.

There is no 3rd-party analytics tool that is “best for SEO” – but there are some you can use better than others. This differs from person to person. And someone who is interested in drill-down demographics data won’t be satisfied with Google Analytics’ limited reporting.

Not everyone wants to use Google Data Studio, either. If it’s your business model to require clients to use Google’s premium tools, explain to them what the advantages to them are (in your opinion). Let them make the decision. If you’re really as good at SEO as you like to think you are you’re flexible about the reporting tools you work with.

If you’re a one-tool SEO wiz you need to practice more with other tools. You can’t force the world to think and work the way you do. You don’t have to like your clients’ tools but you should at least be able to use them.

Don’t hang your client relationship on SEO tool chauvinism.

What You Can Use 3rd-Party SEO Tools for

The competitive nature of the analytics field has driven all the tool vendors to add features to their data collection and reporting systems. While many of the basic reporting tools are flawed because they don’t collect actual traffic data, they do create some robust dashboards.

You shouldn’t be using an SEO tool because it’s got a great-looking dashboard. Populating a wonderful dashboard with bogus data isn’t doing you any favors. You must compensate for the sales hyperbole and inaccurate data with a set of reasonable expectations.

Backlink research benefits from multiple sources of data – Although too many of you are disavowing links you shouldn’t be, there are still good reasons for using 3rd-party backlink reports. You may not have access to a competitor’s search engine dashboards, so all you can do is guess wildly (and badly) at what their backlink profile looks like.

But as many people who fix search engine penalties know, Google Search Console doesn’t show you everything in a large backlink profile. You’re dealing with a manual action and really do need to disavow links, you’ll want to use all the 3rd-party backlink tools you can get.

I’m not a fan of doing link outreach but if you’re going to do it then finding as many sites willing to provide links to sites in your (client’s) niche is better than randomly searching the Web for sites that might be link-friendly.

You should set low expectations for the quality of links you find in these tools. Their metrics may be based on sincere interpretation of their data but they cannot tell you anything about which links are indexed, trusted, or allowed to pass value in the search engines’ indexes.

Use 3rd-party SEO tools for keyword research – Regardless of where they get their keyword ideas and data from, they can provide you with far more ideas about keywords to target with new content than you’ll dream up on your own.

But don’t confuse keyword suggestions for competitors’ traffic data. On more than one occasion people have tried to humiliate me publicly by publishing screen captures of traffic estimates for my sites using SEO tools. The reports only show a fraction of the true traffic these sites get and barely touch on the keyword visibility for these sites.

If you’re relying on 3rd-party SEO tools for competitor analysis you’re wearing a blind-fold while someone is spinning you around and yelling insane conspiracy theories at you.

If you’re smug in your knowledge about someone else’s Web traffic because you’re pulling SEO reports from Ahrefs or SEMRush you’re a damn fool. Don’t do that to yourself. And don’t do it to your clients. If they are paying you for SEO services they deserve better than that.

If you don’t have access to someone else’s search engine dashboard data you have NOTHING when it comes to understanding their search referral traffic and visibility.

Why You Should Ignore SEO Analysts Who Talk about “Google Updates”

One of the worst practices in the SEO industry is where someone takes 3rd-party data from Ahrefs, SEMRush, or whatever and uses screen captures of those (wildly inaccurate) traffic estimates to “explain” the latest Google algorithm changes or updates.

These people never acknowledge that Google makes multiple changes to its search system throughout the week and every weekday. Worse, these people will show you a handful of sites (2-5 at most) and use them to justify their irrational conspiracy theories.

The fact that some group of Web marketers insist a Google update began last Tuesday – coinciding with the fact that your search referral traffic dropped off suddenly – doesn’t mean a thing. You don’t even have a correlation. You have two blips on different radar screens.

In every case study I have examined purporting to prove that subfolders work better than subdomains, I found that on-site navigation was radically altered to favor the subfolders.

In every case study I have examined purporting to show that some alternative health site was targeted by a Google algorithm, I found that the sites in question were using the dumbest SEO strategies possible (including widespread use of “nofollow” on internal links and “noindex” on categories and other archive pages). Specifically, the SEO team for Dr. Axe pushed back against the conspiracy theories circulating in the Web marketing community. They flat out denied in a Facebook discussion that the site had lost anywhere near the 95% of Google traffic that people believe because of their bogus 3rd-party SEO tool traffic estimates.

A site may indeed lose traffic because of some “core update”, but if you’re using 3rd-party analysis to explain what happened you look like a fool.

It’s one thing to look at Google patents, research papers, conference presentations, and Googler interviews and answers to questions on social media and piece all that together for an analysis of a confirmed algorithm. It’s quite another to declare with the solemnity of a Holy Prophet that so-and-so’s site was hit hard by Algorithm X because you’ve got a screen capture to prove it.

People who analyze Google algorithms (including me) may be wrong about some (or all) details but they have a far better chance of saying something correct if they leave out the SEO tool analysis and stick to the verified facts.

That’s what real SEO theory is all about: explaining the known facts. Too many people display their ignorance by ridiculing “theory” while trying to explain what Google is doing. And if you offer such explanations based on 3rd-party SEO reports you’re really not in a position to be bragging about your SEO skills at all for any reason whatsoever. You clearly don’t understand what you’re doing.