Not All Traffic is Created Equal

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, 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: - - [19/Jul/2009:00:03:48 -0400]
"GET /gi_program/pan-stages.htm HTTP/1.1" 200 9379
"Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 7.0; Windows NT 5.1; GTB6)" "cookie=-"

The “form=msnhal” parameter led me to this special page on

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 The link about the four stages of cancer takes them to this 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

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7 Responses to Not All Traffic is Created Equal

  1. Tom Stitt says:

    The classic definition of “organic” search results may need to be modified if use of saved Microsoft Bing searches becomes the norm in mass media online news reporting.

  2. Ed Bennett says:

    Tom – very true. Fortunately, I think this is rare, and the vast majority of our search referrals are legit.

  3. The real success illustrated by this surge came quietly months ago when your content and other efforts caused the Cancer Center’s web page to be top ranked for these keywords. These might not be engaged visitors on this particular Sunday, but there are likely plenty of engaged visitors finding you the rest of the week. The writers and webmasters deserve a pat on the back for that unsung effort. Good work, guys.

  4. Ed Bennett says:


    Thank you for the complements – of course we are always trying to get high organic rankings.

    What’s interesting is the disconnect between real search traffic and what happened here with Bing. First of all, pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare condition. There are simply not that many people searching for information on this condition. (at least compared to breast cancer, lung cancer, or several others)

    Secondly – our number #1 ranking is for a fairly obscure, long-tail search. We do not rank #1 for more common searches like “pancreatic cancer”, “pancreatic cancer treatment” , etc.

    That’s why this traffic stood out as an aberration. On a normal day we might get one (1) visitor who searched for “stages of pancreatic cancer” – on this Sunday we got 6,000.

  5. Like the way you’ve clarified “real” search traffic, viz., a visitor who is actively searching. Once again, albeit in a different context/conversation, engagement is a significant feature — or should be when we’re defining success.

  6. Larry Ricci says:

    Thanks Ed. This is really interesting, and I think use of search listings in news portal outlets is something we should watch carefully.

    While only a fraction of the people who were reading about N Korea clicked through actually had pancreatic cancer, I bet this group included every one of them that did have pancreatic cancer. People with pancreatic cancer are interested in N Korea too. While the % of relevant queries is low, the absolute number of relevant queries delivered by this channel was probably high. I would expect relevant searches from Bing to include only the Bing market share of people searching.

    The rareness of “Pancreatic Cancer” is not the key issue- all long tail searches are rare. I wonder if use of long tail search terms in new articles can be exploited in any way??

    Larry Ricci

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