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Web sites seeing more traffic from direct navigation

With all the discussion--and anxiety among media companies--about "world domination" by the major search companies, you might think that nearly all activity on the Web begins with search. While the amount of traffic from search engines is clearly on the rise, many of the sites at my company, IDG, are starting to see a trend that a lot of publishers whom I speak with are also seeing: Traffic from organic search is leveling off as a percentage of total traffic, while traffic from direct-navigation visits is increasing.

Data from a few IDG media sites that compared April 2006 to April 2007 users showed that traffic coming from organic search engine results (not counting paid listings) went down by 7 percent as a percentage of total traffic, while direct visits (from bookmarks or type-ins) is up by about 4 percent in share of traffic. According to IDC (an IDG sibling), around 70 percent of traffic to Web sites doesn't come directly from organic searches.

There are a number of factors driving the increase in direct navigation traffic. Users are getting more sophisticated and are bookmarking sites that identify with their lifestyles and information needs. At the same time, many Web sites are getting more useful for their audiences, providing deeper content and community elements, and are doing a better job of marketing to establish their brands and encourage repeat visits.

This is a great opportunity for online content providers and publishers to develop a deeper, more direct relationship with users by providing a richer experience. Offering more comprehensive content is one step. Visitors want to find information quickly that is organized according to their interests. Creating "knowledge centers" or categories is one way of classifying information for visitors. In addition, grouping editorial, blogs, user-generated content and other third-party content together by category makes sites easier for visitors and advertisers to use.

Community and user interaction are also key to driving type-in traffic. Community is not just for the social media sites; it should be the goal of all media sites to add user participation elements, which are extremely effective in generating return visits. Social networks in general play a growing role in driving traffic. A Hitwise study last year revealed the impact that social sites have had in sending consumers to e-commerce sites. Shopping and classified sites, for instance, received 2.4 percent of their traffic directly from MySpace last September--an 83 percent increase in six months.

The rise of type-in traffic also is a good indicator that all media sites are not just a temporary stop along the search path. As publishers reassert their brands in a world of search and aggregation, the revenue will follow. In addition to making sites more useful for visitors, publishers need to create a rich marketing environment for advertisers by leveraging the deep knowledge of their regular visitors to provide sophisticated ad targeting so that the most relevant ads are served. This will ultimately yield more advertising dollars and more direct relationships with marketers. Increased direct-navigation users provide a more predictable element to forecasting traffic and the inventory requirements for ad sales. A steady flow of type-in traffic can also smooth out the volatile nature of organic traffic from search.

It's sometimes easier for consumers to find what they need via search engines, and the traffic that comes to our sites from these searches is most welcome indeed. But as search engines widen the funnel of potential Web visitors and also increase their advertising costs, it's the responsibility of Web publishers to convert a significant amount of that traffic into direct-navigation visitors. There are some early indications that this strategy is working.

Bob Carrigan is President of IDG Communications. (bob_carrigan@idg.com)

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