How to Track Referrers to Your Web Marketing Site - dummies

How to Track Referrers to Your Web Marketing Site

By John Arnold, Michael Becker, Marty Dickinson, Ian Lurie, Elizabeth Marsten

To do web marketing analytics, you need to understand exactly how referrers are tracked and what the tracking data means. It’s a bit technical, but don’t let it scare you off. You’re a smart person.

Here’s how referrer tracking works in the background as you (or your visitors) use the Internet:

  1. You use a search engine, visit a website, or receive an e-mail message.

  2. You click a link on the page.

  3. That link directs you to another website.

  4. When you land on that other website, the web server that powers that site asks your web browser where you came from.

  5. Unless you turned off this feature, your web browser delivers that information — the referrer — to the web server.

  6. The web server logs the data.

  7. If you’re using a JavaScript web bug–based traffic-reporting tool, your reporting tool logs it, too.

A lot of folks get the heebie-jeebies about privacy when they find out that every web server knows the site that referred them. But it’s really not that bad. You can turn off your browser’s ability to deliver this data if you want. But 99 percent of the time, web servers just know that some nameless person came from site A or B.

They don’t know who that person is. The only time they’ll specifically know that you are who you are is if you create an account on that site and give them permission to track that data. Hopefully, you trust them at that point.

That referrer data typically includes

  • The referring site address, such as

  • The complete referring URL

    For example, if you came from a search for buggy bumpers on Google, the URL might be If you came from the contactus.htm page on a company site, the URL might be

With that data, any good traffic-reporting tool can determine

  • Where a visitor came from

  • If the visitor came from a search engine, what keywords that person used to find your site

  • The specific page on the referring site from which the visitor came

  • Sometimes, whether the visitor clicked a specific ad or link on that page

You can see why referrer data is so valuable. With it, you can figure out which websites, keywords, and ads generate sales, leads, or other quality visits to your site.

Without referrer data, you’re driving with your eyes closed.