I like a good site traffic mystery, and we had an interesting example last week. On Sunday July 18, visits to our Cancer Center website jumped, to a level five times higher than normal.
It was all going to a single page of content – Stages of Pancreatic Cancer. The next day visits went back to regular levels.
At first we thought this was a repeat of March, 2008 when Patrick Swayze was in the news. We saw a similar two-day jump in traffic when news broke about his diagnosis.
This time the news was about the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Il – but something wasn’t right about this traffic. Drilling down into Google Analytics we found two red flags:
1. All the additional visitors came from Bing.com, the new search engine from Microsoft. Search traffic from Google was at normal levels.
2. All the visitors typed in same exact search phrase: “Stages of pancreatic cancer” (with the first “S” capitalized)
Obviously, these were not real searches. A clue was found in the raw log files – here’s one example:
www.umgcc.org - - [19/Jul/2009:00:03:48 -0400] "GET /gi_program/pan-stages.htm HTTP/1.1" 200 9379 "http://www.bing.com/search?q=Stages+of+pancreatic+cancer&form=msnhal" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 7.0; Windows NT 5.1; GTB6)" "cookie=-"
The “form=msnhal” parameter led me to this special page on msn.com:
Apparently, the home page of the MSN portal linked to this A-List page when Kim Jung Il was in the news. It has a short write-up on pancreatic cancer, with hard coded searches to Bing.com. The link about the four stages of cancer takes them to this bing.com search, and our site is the top result.
That was the true source of our traffic, not real searches.
Bottom line, take a close look at unusual traffic – you may be surprised at the true sources.
UPDATE: A few people have asked why I think this is not “real” search traffic. The difference is in the visitor mind set. Real search traffic comes from engaged visitors. They are actively seeking information, typing in a search, looking at the results, and trying to find answers. They are a participant, not a passive browser.
The traffic from this Bing example is not the real deal – just folks following a series of links, and clicking on our result because it happened to be #1