Which are the most important e-commerce traffic sources?

Data from 65 million ecommerce orders shows the crucial sources of traffic for ecommerce websites

Ecommerce and online retail is a booming sector, but because the latest marketing techniques change so rapidly it can be tricky to keep up with the latest trends whilst also keeping your feet on the ground.

In a new report, Yotpo collated data from 65 million ecommerce orders representing $2 billion dollars in transactions over 120,000 ecommerce stores, and established what the industry average is for digital media.

ecommerce traffic by source

The results make for slightly surprising reading. On the face of things, Social makes up a healthy 6%, but this is still a relatively small slice over the overall pie. Paid makes up 5%, which leaves considerable room for growth, whilst email makes up a rather small 3%. It would be interesting to see the conversion rates by traffic, as it may be that referrals from emails are on the site because they’ve decided to purchase, whilst those from other sources may be more likely to be there to browse or research. I was slightly surprised search didn’t make up a larger share, since it is how most customers generally start their buying journey. Investing in better content marketing efforts could be more than worth it for many ecommerce stores, as if done well it will attract quality links and boost SEO.

Relying too much on one source of traffic leaves you exposed to risks, just because a channel is fantastic for generating traffic today doesn’t mean it will continue to be. Some sites lost out when Panda put penalties on certain SEO linking practices. Others lost out when Facebook decided to massively restrict organic reach. If your site had relied exclusively one of these sources of traffic then the changes may have put you in some serious trouble.

The best way to avoid these risks is by hedging your bets by acquiring your traffic from a considerable variety of sources. But what is a good variety? That’s where the data comes in.


The big surprise in many ways is how large a proportion of traffic comes from direct. Fully 40% of traffic came from direct, which accounts for more ecommerce traffic than any other single source. Direct in theory is the people who have typed in the URL directly to their browser, but in reality it means anyone who arrives at the site from a source that cannot be tracked. The source of this traffic is generally links that have been sent to friends/colleagues and then copied and pasted into web browsers. Traffic of this kind is generally referred to as ‘dark social’, as it is comprised of links that are shared socially, but cannot be tracked. This means ‘dark social’ actually accounts for a considerable percentage of direct traffic.

Dark Social

By its very nature, it is difficult to accurately account for what percentage of your direct traffic is actually ‘dark social’. However with direct accounting for 40% of of ecommerce traffic it seems likely dark social is making up a large proportion of the total. A general rule of thumb is that for every three people reaching your site via social, a further 7 will be arriving from ‘dark social’, which will appear as direct. If this is true for ecommerce traffic then dark social accounts for half of all the direct traffic, which is 20% of the total traffic. This makes dark social the 3rd largest source of ecommerce traffic by a considerable margin. Bear that mind when designing you’re landing pages and crafting the copy for your social shares. Social is probably more important to your bottom line than you think.

Other statistics on the most popular traffic sources and media channels for retailers?

If you're not aware of it the excellent Custora Ecommerce Pulse showing orders by channel is also of interest for retailers to benchmark against. This is the latest data in 2016 from the end of 2015.

It's a compilation of traffic or media sources from some of the top US retail sites which drive sales.

What channels draw the most engaged traffic?

Not all clicks are equal, and some visits are more valuable than others. Some channels bring traffic that is more likely to spend plenty of time reviewing the site, whilst others are more likely to bounce back relatively quickly. Email, Instagram and referral are the stars here. Conversely, Pinterest and Facebook bring traffic likely to spend only half as much time on site as the top performers. It is important to tie this information into budget allocation models, as a click from an email may be worth considerably more than one form Pinterest for example.

traffic engagement by source ecommerce

How important is mobile?

Mobile has been a buzz word in digital for several years now, to the point where it seems almost out-dated to talk about how important it is as everyone should know by now. Mobile now makes up the majority of visits across the web, but this is not the case for ecommerce. Because of the fiddly nature of payment forms, mobile accounts for slightly over 1/3rd of all ecommerce visits. If your rate of mobile traffic is lower than this it might be worth seeing if your site needs further optimisation for mobile. Responsive design should be your first priority, and if this is already in place then it may be worth a bit of user testing to see if the customer journey is as smooth on mobile as it is on desktop.

mobile / desktop ecommerce traffic

We hope this ecommerce traffic data has been helpful for benchmarking where you currently are against the industry average. If you want more data on ecommerce traffic you can see the full report from Yotpo. For more advice on making the most of your ecommerce traffic check out our ecommerce design pattern guide.

Share your thoughts

  • Thanks for the info.

    But seems to me that Yotpo customers are doing PPC all wrong.

    I guess their figures are heavily biased against PPC (looking at the services they provide).

    It’s a bit like me (PPC person) doing a study looking at all my clients who spend large amounts on PPC which shows that social accounts for relatively little. (By the way it usually does account for very little from what I’ve seen over the last 9 years or so when it come to actual sales – even if you do take into account ‘dark’ social).

    Though you’ve got me thinking, maybe I’ll start including ‘Dark’ PPC traffic in my reports from now on 🙂

    And like you said (pretty much) their figures would be a lot more useful if it showed transaction values rather than just visits. (Another PPC example – you can get millions of cheap clicks from the Display network which don’t convert for you – certainly cheaper than social if you factor in the amount of time you have to spend on it).

    Just my 2 pence worth..

    • Thanks for your thoughts Jordan. Interesting points and certainly some food for thought.

      Its always important to understand the inherent bias in any report or research. It’s a bit like if Facebook produced a report on the effectiveness of paid ads on Facebook. It might provide a lot of useful stats, but you still have to take it with a pinch of salt.

    • Thanks for your assessment Jordan – I don’t think they are biased against PPC – they provide a reviews service and they will track the referrer string through their tag (unless their not including the Google Click ID from AdWords).

      I think Paid may reference Display? Search = SEO and AdWords.

      It’s why I included the Custora Pulse data – that shows how important PPC is for the larger businesses they survey.

      As Rob says you always have to look at sample and bias. It’s like the surveys of email marketers where the top tool is rated as email marketing!

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