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Seasonal Web Traffic: The Proverbial Coal in Your Stocking

December 2009, I looked back through the analytics of several busy content sites I help manage and saw a serious traffic drop-off. It’s no fun being the bearer of bad news and the news was pretty bad. Most sites were seeing close to a 40% decrease in overall traffic starting on the first week of December. It was ugly.

A little internet research, typically the cure for any random issue you can’t seem to explain on your own, did not do much to allay our fears that something – something terrible – was happening. There were a few anecdotal reports of traffic drops but I could not find anything that allayed our fear. We crossed our fingers, took some time off, and hoped for the best.

Turns out that the significant down-turn cleared itself up by the first non-holiday week in January. Here are the visitor graphs to illustrate:





As you can see, the sites saw a big dip in traffic that came on slowly and recouped immediately after the last holiday weekend. We were quite relieved.

But, still, there was the question of how to potentially prevent this problem in the future. I wanted to figure out if there was some kind of obvious pattern that this dip was following so I looked at the traffic sources for one of the sites (the last graph above). It confirmed my suspicion that we were just seeing an overall decrease in web use:

Visitors from direct traffic
Visitors from referring sites
Visitors from search engines

The fact that the drop was across all three (actually four; our campaigns showed a similar pattern) was bittersweet. Sure, we weren’t doing anything wrong or suffering some sort of Google penalty but there also wasn’t any obvious recourse. We were prepared for next year with an explanation but not a way out.

I read a Chris Brogan article (or was it a video? I’d link to it if I could find it again) that made me feel bad (which is rare) but I got his point. He said that everyone slows down around the holidays so that’s the best time to kick ass and take names. While everyone drinks and eats and gets their merry on, he’s making videos, writing blog posts, and generally crushing it. I felt bad because I think I watched/read on vacation.

Point being, we slow down during the holidays and we should slow down if we need to. Incoming content slows down, traffic decreases, people spend time away from the glowing screen. This is a good thing from a human standpoint but is there a way to mitigate it? I see a few options:

  • If possible, start tuning your content towards the people that are active on the web at this time: shoppers and the researchers/media that follows them. I see so many “what I’m thankful for posts” and that’s cute but I’m not motivated to read that at all. What I do want to know is where the good deals are. For a blog about business finance or social CRM, this just doesn’t make sense. But what about retail spending analysis? Improving online sales? Bumping up customer service during these months? The people that are producing are dying for timely content and the holiday season makes it too easy.
  • Another option is a holiday-specific event like a webinar or conference. The problem here is that your general attendance might be low so the return on the time invested may not be worth it. If it’s vital to keep those numbers up, it needs to be done.
  • The last option is to accept the hit and concentrate on other things. Let go of a few things and concentrate on cleaning up broken links, old site sections, social networks you’re not using. Change the pace and the focus to switch things up and give yourself a break from the usual. Catch up on your RSS feed and leave several comments across the ‘sphere.

In the end, if you’re starving for work, you can find it. Just make sure you understand the limitations of the season and set your expectations accordingly.

Replies

Total: 5

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  1. Neil

    December 10, 2016 at 3:04 am  •  Reply

    Neil says:

    Hi Josh,

    Your post was an interesting read considering that my content website traffic is going through a very similar pattern. Its traffic was increasing slowly but steadily in the last year but since the last week of November and into December now, I am observing a decrease in traffic comparable to your sample stats. I am worried that it might be a permanent thing that will get worse but reading your post made me think it may also be a seasonal drop and things may get back on track again in January.

    How has your experience been since writing this post? Did you continue to observe similar drops in traffic in Decembers the following years?

    Thanks.

    • Josh

      December 14, 2016 at 1:51 pm  •  Reply

      Josh says:

      Neil,

      This is definitely present on two sites that I work on, both of which cater to financial professionals. One is flat all year except for about 1.75x in October, then 3x in April (leading up to tax day). The other is less pronounced but extremely consistent year-to-year, big hump in the first 5 months, dies down over the summer, and then another big hump at year end, almost completely dying off in the days in-between and surrounding Christmas and New Years.


  2. pingback  •  January 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm  •  Link

    […] of the year as the song implies but it’s not the most productive. It’s no secret that websites see a noticeable decline in traffic at the end of the year, so chances are your regular clients aren’t looking for new content to publish during this […]


  3. pete stanaitis

    May 21, 2012 at 7:23 am  •  Reply

    pete stanaitis says:

    Thanks for your article.

    I guess my little site is what they used to call a “vanity” site, but we see it as an educational tool.
    Until last fall (fall of 2011) my traffic would struggle up from the 7K/mo to 9K/mo range to 12K/mo or so my the Jan/Feb period of the following year.
    Last fall I did a lot of SEO work and got up to almost 17K/mo by the end of March. Great!
    But—
    Over the last several years, I have seen both “seasonal” dips and “holiday” dips. But this year’s “seasonal” dip, down to about 9K/mo is worse than anything I have ever seen.

    Do you see any reason why this spring is any different from the past?

    • Josh

      May 24, 2012 at 6:47 am  •  Reply

      Josh says:

      Glad I could help and good question…

      The seasonal dips I’m talking about here are all-site traffic, so referrals from other sites, direct traffic, and search engine traffic. For the sites above, searches only accounted for about a third or less of the total traffic. Our big drop was in referral and direct traffic as people slowed down on social networks and browsing in general.

      I would assume, if you’re seeing specific drops in search engine traffic, that you’re either (1) starting to get out-ranked by other sites for key words or (2) seeing the effect of a Google algorithm change (or both). If you’re seeing big drops in main keywords, you’re probably experiencing the first problem; if it’s systemic across all your keywords or just one search engine, it’s the latter.

      Hope that helps!

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