Let's bring up a hypothetical question.. If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only have one analytics report which would it be? Let me try another - if you had to judge a website by only one report, which report would it be?
I would have to say, that the Referrals report is one of the few reports that can give you insight into many facets of a website and of the team managing the site. The Referral report shows a sites performance in the following areas:
- Traffic: The Referral report gives insight into how well the site attracts traffic through SEO, PPC, eMail marketing, partner marketing, and auxiliary channels such as Google Maps.
- SEO and PPC: The basis of most search relevancy algorithms (including Google's) is quality back links. While the Referral reports doesn't necessarily straight up say which links are helping you most with SEO, (sans PPC) it does give you an indication of which of your back link domains is the most trafficked and which sites are promoting yours the best. Good SEO does a great job informing and contributing to PPC strategies.
- Social Communities: Look at how many people are clicking on links to your site from Facebook, QZone, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Google+ and you will have good insight into how many people are interacting with your brand in the social sphere. One important social link to track is how many employees are linking to your site on their LinkedIn profiles.
- Partner Marketing: It is often hard to know which partnerships will result in the best benefits for an organization. Knowing which partners are contributing visitors (and conversions) to your site.
- Content Strategies: The Referral report will show you how many pages on your site are being linked to from other sites and show you which pieces of content are being linked to the most. A good distribution of links to your content and high traffic to your content from other sites are good indicators of strong/valuable content.
- Media Mentions and Blog Mentions: Are people talking about your site or your organization? These days if people are talking about your company, they are writing about the company on media sites, blogs, and forums. The Referral report is showing you which mentions (links) are getting the most traffic and the most attention.
- PR Campaigns: While Press Releases are often judged by impressions, a great PR campaign will send out links which get indexed by search engines, read by visitors, and attract interested traffic through links.
- Chatter: Are people chatting about your organization on chat tools. Filter your Referrals report for the names of the most common chat tools (i.e. MSN, AOL, Yahoo, QQ, Google Talk) and you will often find how many people are sending links to your site to their friends and co-workers.
- eMail Marketing: While the Referrals report doesn't necessarily track links in desktop email clients, it is pretty good at tracking links in web eMail clients such as Hotmail and Gmail. The referral report give you insight to how often your links are getting sent via email through email marketing or just friends/co-workers sharing links to your site.
- Product and Company Reviews: Reviews on sites such as Yelp, CNet, and Consumer Reports often generate traffic to the products they are reviewing through links embedded in the reviews.
- Physical Locations: If you have several physical locations, look at how many clicks you are getting from sites such as maps.google.com or MapQuest to see if you are showing up in search results and if those results are getting clicks.
- Web Team Performance: If you are looking for the one report that gives you the most insight into how strong your web team is - it would probably be a report showing your site's aggregate conversions and conversion rates. If you need a out-of-the-box report to show your web team's performance, the Referrals report is a good place to start. Good links, good content, good partnerships, and good SEO don't just happen. On the web, you cannot just “build it” and hope that “they will come.” With the bullet items mentioned above you can have good insight into how the rest of the web perceives your site and whether or not your web team is doing a good job with social campaigns, linking strategy, content strategy, partner marketing, email marketing, as well as many other areas.
The Referral report does not give you a comprehensive list of links to your site (neither does Google Webmaster Tools). But it does show you which links to your site are getting clicks. Most of the reports in web analytics tools have insufficient context to be useful by themselves. The Referral report gives you immediate insight into a large variety of areas.
Note: For a more comprehensive list of sites that link to your site, use a link report tool such as MajesticSEO.