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What Is Clickstream Data & Why Does It Matter?

There’s a chance you’re relying on clickstream data when doing keyword research or measuring the effectiveness of your SEO strategy. Before placing too much emphasis on this data, make sure you understand where it comes from and how it’s used.

Jul 21, 2023

5 m read

If you’ve ever wondered how search engine optimization (SEO) tools get keyword ranking and volume data, this article is for you! Learn where that information comes from (hint: it isn’t Google) and why it’s best to take it with a grain of salt.

What Is Clickstream Data?

Clickstream data refers to the record of web pages a user clicks on and navigates through, essentially tracking the “clicks” a user makes when online. Different sources gather this data in the form of log files that capture user activity on a web server.

Key information captured in clickstream data includes:

  • The user’s IP address.
  • The date and time of the click.
  • The page the user is currently on.
  • The page the user navigated to.
  • The order of pages visited.
  • Time spent on each page.
  • The number of times a user visits a page.
  • Other transactional information, if available.

The Value of Clickstream Data

Clickstream data is much more than just a trail of online breadcrumbs; it’s a goldmine of information that marketers, webmasters, and SEO professionals can leverage to better understand user behavior. It provides deep insights into how users navigate websites, including the pages they visit, how long they stay on these pages, and the sequence of their visits.

You can use this valuable information to optimize websites for improved user experiences, create more engaging content, and make strategic decisions for your SEO. Understanding the customer journey through clickstream data allows businesses to refine their strategies and drive more traffic, conversions, and customer retention.

How Do SEO Tools Access Clickstream Data?

Different tools generally collect clickstream data in two ways:

  • Directly from the websites or servers: Each website or server logs the activity of its users in the form of clickstream data. You can directly access this data if you own or manage the server or website. However, this data is usually unavailable for third-party access due to privacy concerns unless explicitly shared or sold.
  • Through third-party data providers: Some companies, often referred to as data brokers or data providers, specialize in collecting and selling anonymized clickstream data. These companies typically use one of two methods to collect data:
    • Browser extensions or apps: Some companies distribute free or paid software (like browser extensions or applications) that, with user consent, collect anonymized clickstream data as the user navigates the web. They often do this in exchange for providing the user with some kind of service.
    • Partnerships with ISPs: Some data providers form partnerships with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to collect anonymized clickstream data. However, due to increasing regulations and privacy concerns, this method is less common.

SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush typically obtain clickstream data by purchasing it from these third-party data providers. 

Clickstream Data and Privacy

Data privacy laws regulate the collection, storage, and use of personal data, which includes clickstream data.  However, SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush that use this data are committed to privacy compliance. The clickstream data they purchase is anonymized and aggregated, so it doesn’t reveal any personally identifiable information. This ensures individual privacy while still providing valuable insights for SEO. 

Ahrefs’ and Semrush’s Use of Clickstream Data

SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush use clickstream data to inform their keyword research tools, competitive analysis features, and other services. Here’s how they use this data:

  • Keyword research: By analyzing the clickstream data, these tools can identify which keywords users are entering into search engines and provide estimated data on search volume and other keyword-related metrics.
  • User behavior analysis: Clickstream data provides insights into user behavior, such as which pages users visit after entering a specific keyword.
  • Competitor analysis: By looking at the traffic to different domains, these tools estimate which websites get the most traffic for specific keywords. This allows businesses to understand who their competitors are and what strategies they might be using.
  • Link building: By tracking which pages link to others, these tools can help identify potential link-building opportunities.

It’s important to note that these SEO tools have to use a combination of clickstream data and other data sources to provide more complete and accurate data for their users. 

Challenges and Limitations of Clickstream Data

Despite its many advantages, clickstream data isn’t without its challenges and limitations. Here are some specific limitations to consider when using clickstream data for tracking keywords and SEO performance:

  • Not fully representative: Clickstream data doesn’t fully represent all online user behavior. It may not capture all user interactions, especially those happening within mobile apps or encrypted (HTTPS) environments where data cannot be easily tracked. Also, users who use privacy-focused browsers, VPNs, or have opted out from being tracked won’t be included in this data. Thus, the data carries a certain level of bias.
  • Depends on the size of the data pool: The accuracy of insights depends on the size and diversity of the user base being tracked. If the data pool is small or skewed towards a specific demographic, it may not give a true reflection of broader trends.
  • Anonymization and aggregation: The clickstream data these tools use is anonymized and aggregated. While this is crucial for privacy, it means that granular, user-level insights are not available. As a result, it may be challenging to drill down to very specific or niche queries or understand the context behind certain user behaviors.
  • Time delays: There can be a time lag between when the data is collected and when it’s processed and made available in the tools, meaning the data may not always reflect the most current trends or user behaviors.
  • Keyword “not provided”: A substantial portion of organic search data is now categorized as “not provided” due to privacy changes in browsers and search engines, which withhold the actual search query from the website owner. This makes it difficult to identify the exact keywords a user entered before landing on a page.
  • Imprecision in keyword volumes: Tools typically use clickstream data to estimate keyword search volumes, but these estimates can be imprecise. SEO tools often combine clickstream data with data from other sources to improve accuracy.
  • Limited insights into algorithmic changes: Search engine algorithm changes can significantly affect SEO performance. While clickstream data can reveal shifts in traffic and rankings, it cannot directly provide insights into the specifics of these algorithm changes.

While clickstream data provides a detailed view of user activity, it’s not all-encompassing. Understanding these limitations is crucial for leveraging clickstream data effectively and making informed decisions about SEO strategies. Despite its imperfections, when you use it in conjunction with other SEO data sources and techniques, clickstream data can provide a comprehensive view of user behavior and market trends.

The Future of Clickstream Data

Looking ahead, the field of clickstream data is ripe for evolution. With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can expect more sophisticated analysis of this data, providing even deeper and more actionable insights. For instance, predictive analytics could potentially use clickstream data to anticipate user behavior and preferences, informing more targeted and personalized marketing strategies.

However, the future isn’t just about technological advancements. Changes in regulations and public attitudes toward data privacy could impact how companies collect and use clickstream data. As users become more aware of their digital footprints, they may demand more control over their data. This could lead to more stringent data collection policies and possibly even a shift away from data-intensive practices. As such, it’s crucial for businesses and SEO professionals to stay abreast of these developments and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Measuring Your SEO Strategy’s Effectiveness

Not all tools rely on clickstream data. If you’re looking for more information about your website’s search performance, you can’t go wrong with Google tools. Download our free ebook to learn how to make the most of them.

A Guide to Google Tools for SEO

Download this guide to learn how to make the best use of the free, powerful tools Google provides to improve your SEO processes and performance.

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