Google Analytics is fun.
If you are anything like me, you can relate to the sheer pleasure of watching numbers paint a picture for you.
The problem is – it’s not always a life-like, hyper-realistic 3D painting. In fact, more often than not, it’s a beautiful, muddled, chaotic, abstract masterpiece that makes you go ‘WTF is this?!’
It’s good to have fun – but we’ve got a job on our hand.
Showing an important client a Google Analytics report that says a whopping 25% of their traffic came from DIRECT/NONE is something like this. They are either going to think you don’t know what you’re talking about, or – worse – they are going to be happy thinking they’ve got a website that people just can’t help but visit.
So, yeah – the point is, direct traffic matters. It’s easy to just shove it under the carpet and feel good about organic/social/paid insights – but that’s what amateurs do.
If you can decode the mystery of direct traffic, you can almost always add more power to your other campaigns.
Table of Contents
Direct traffic is all the traffic to your website that does not pass a referrer to your GA code.
For all practical reasons, this is the only direct traffic definition you’ll ever need.
Here’s what direct traffic looks like on your Google Analytics Dashboard (Home > Acquisition > Overview).
Every single website out there has to deal with direct traffic – you can’t just wish it away.
Depending on the nature of the website, it’s possible to have direct traffic higher even than 50%.
We’d all be better off dealing with well-defined traffic channels like organic, paid and referral, right?
Unfortunately, this is something even Google has no control over.
There are many scenarios (we’ll list them all below) in which the link host passes absolutely no referrer data to Google Analytics. The reasons vary – some hosts have no referrer data, some fail to pass on the data while other simply refuse to share it at all.
What happens behind the curtains becomes clearer when we actually narrow this down to some common direct traffic sources.
Every traffic channel that does not pass on referrer data to Google Analytics is a potential source of direct traffic.
A quick reminder – the direct traffic sources listed here will cover for the majority of your direct traffic. If even after identifying these sources and implementing the necessary fixes, there are no major changes to your direct traffic, you may need a rigorous Google Analytics audit. To know more or to request a free proposal, please drop us a line here.
I know you know about this one.
This is probably the most obvious explanation you’ve been dishing out to your clients when they ask you where the hell all that direct traffic is coming from.
Simply put, all the people who type the URL in their browsers to end up on your website are grouped as direct traffic by Google Analytics.
If your website is a brand that people are aware of, it’s possible that you get a lot of type-in traffic. For example, if I want to check out new iPad features, I’m going directly to Apple.com.
If you’ve got a website that people have been bookmarking, props to you!
But unfortunately, all those visits go under ‘direct’.
Moreover, visits from history pages, frequently visited pages and recently visited pages pass no referrer data, forcing GA to count them as direct.
It’s not always that bad. If, for example, the first touch attribution is organic, the utmz cookie created by GA to store campaign data is smart enough to track down the subsequent type-in or bookmark visits as a ‘follow-up’ to the initial organic visit. In many cases, GA clubs such follow-ups as organic traffic. The campaign cookie by default expires after six months of inactivity.
Traffic from links embedded in documents – Word, Excel, PDF and so on – has no referrer data to speak of.
These documents are mostly non web-based.
A link from an email attachment will almost certainly have all its referrer data wiped off when opened in a desktop client, while a PDF file hosted on Drive or Dropbox may or may not pass on the referrer data.
This is not a direct traffic source that most websites need to worry about. But if you are doing email marketing, sending out proposals or carrying out general outreach via brochures/documents, you need to take this seriously.
Traffic referred by an HTTPS source to an HTTP destination passes on no referrer data.
If your domain isn’t SSL protected, this is likely to be the largest source of direct traffic for you. Then again, the question you should be asking yourself here is why have I still not migrated to HTTPS?
This is the elephant in the room, as far as I’m concerned.
Privates shares come mainly from chatting and messaging apps. Think Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger, Slack and Telegram. There’s a fine line here, though.
So, in reality, whatever social traffic you seen in your Google Analytics, is only a fraction of what it should be – a proverbial tip of the iceberg. Taking private shares seriously should really be a no-brainer.
Why is this important, though?
Again, two reasons.
All these things can become overwhelming very, very quickly. At HQ SEO, we’ve built custom analytics reporting systems that let you stay on top of every number that matters. If you want to know how it can change your way of looking at analytics, feel free to get in touch here.
The eco-system of apps is still only about a decade old. There aren’t many ideal practices as such that are followed around the world. On
You can be sure that most apps DON’T pass the referrer data on.
This will definitely change in coming years, but for now, any traffic coming from apps (except ads, of course) contributes to direct traffic.
There are dozens of active versions floating around for each browser, and not all of them pass the referrer data on.
Many Firefox versions, for example, send traffic sans referrer data.
There are even Chrome extensions that help you disable the tracking of referrer headers, and these hits will all go under direct traffic.
A minor consideration goes for links that you specifically want tracked as direct traffic (using the rel=noreferrer attribute).
In many such redirect sequences, the referrer data is lost, and by the time the GA cookie fires, the visit looks like a direct hit (or a self-referral).
There could be many more scenarios that can keep piling the direct traffic on.
Incorrectly tagged links, QR code scans, In-app browsing, Bots – just to name a few.
At any point, if you think there’s something really weird going on with your traffic sources, it’s time to dig deeper.
Our advanced analytics reporting services are designed exactly to tackle these issues.
To know more, you can write to us here.
I’ll say this as clearly as I can: NO!
If you have second thoughts about it, here’s something to get tattooed – All traffic is good traffic.
Of course, barring bots and spam.
So, as long as you’re getting traffic, you shouldn’t be alarmed just because a huge chunk of it is direct.
At the same time, you need to put in some urgent fixes, because:
It’s important to understand two points here:
I’ll say this again: the primary goal is NOT to reduce direct traffic. It is to help Google Analytics re-classify such traffic into proper channels.
Here are some solutions that can help you reduce direct traffic for this purpose (arranged in no urgency/importance order).
I’ve been an SEO long enough to have seen some pretty strange stuff. Even stuff that is borderline weird.
But here’s one thing I haven’t seen so far – a really legit justification to not switch to HTTPS.
HTTPS makes your website more trustworthy for search engines (SEO benefits), customers (conversion boosts) and – in the context of direct traffic – referring websites (no referrer data is lost).
The easiest way to avoid all these issues is to just switch to HTTPS (the right way).
Ideally, I’d love to have every inbound click reported the right way.
But, as I mentioned in the last point, it’s counter-productive to tag certain links.
You can’t really tag backlinks because it waters down the link equity AND, more importantly, it makes the link look anything but ‘natural’ or ‘editorial’. So, as long your website is HTTPS, your link building campaigns can be tracked without much difficulty. The same goes for digital PR.
If you are, however, sharing links on social media, embedding links into email newsletters, adding them to documents/brochures or doing offline advertising, it’s extremely important to use the right tags.
I know what you’re thinking – what about the campaigns that are already live? How do I bring them under control?
Well, there’s not much you can do about those. If modifying those links is an option, take it. If not, you need an extensive analysis of your traffic – now and from now on to track their performance as accurately as possible.
At HQ SEO, we offer advanced Google Analytics services as a part of our end-to-end digital marketing and SEO services that help you optimise each and every campaign. If pushing your marketing ROIs through the roof sounds like something you could use, feel free to get in touch here!
This is what a well-built and tagged campaign URL looks like:
When someone ends up on your website via this URL and the GA cookie fires, it instantly identifies the campaign source, medium, name and other attributes. This allows GA to classify the visit under appropriate channels, rather than just giving up and branding it as ‘direct’.
It couldn’t be easier.A word of caution: Incorrect tagging parameters break the URL. Even though Google is smart enough to discard broken parameters, it will still mean that the all the traffic to that URL will be counted as direct (defeating the whole purpose).
It can be.
A tagged URL is always going to look ugly. People don’t really like that sort of stuff.
So, a good way around is to do this:
1. Use vanity URLs. Employ 301 redirects from the vanity URL to the tagged URL. Be sure to tag the destination URL properly.
2. Use URL shorteners and redirect the shortened URL to the tagged one.
For better effect, use premium services from bit.ly (or other shorteners) to create custom, branded, memorable URLs. For example, bit.ly/MyXmasGift will get many more clicks than bit.ly/2FrieHW.
I won’t get too technical here.
It’s the first commandment of Google Analytics – but hey, we all forget things from time to time.
If you manage your own website or your agency does the job for your clients, it’s important to keep the data clean, clear and contamination-free. Internal traffic is anything BUT that (and it’s almost always direct).
So, block all your internal traffic from being reported if you’ve got no use for it.
It’s very common – especially if you aren’t using a ready-to-roll platform like WordPress.
Even on WordPress, using a bad third-party Analytics plugin can leave many pages with broken GA code.
Broken codes may fail to capture all the referrer data or return no data at all. This usually adds to direct traffic.
The easy fix should be to make sure that your important landing pages have a working GA code that fires as expected.
A more thorough solution would be to start from the scratch and find everything wrong there is about how you’re doing analytics on your website. Our advanced analytics reporting services are designed to root out all such problem to make sure that you stay on top of all traffic.
To request a proposal or to know more about how these errors impact the way you measure the success of your campaigns, contact us here.
It usually doesn’t come to this.
If you just can’t reduce direct traffic despite taking all these steps, you can create and embed local survey forms and ask your visitors directly how they found you. It doesn’t guarantee results and wastes an important lead gen spot on the landing page, but it’s an option worth implementing if you really can’t make other options work.
Time to put your Google Analytics data through some crunching.
Once you have implemented all the solutions I’ve mentioned above, you should already see significant drops in direct traffic. Whatever direct traffic is left (I call this the residual direct traffic) needs even more of your attention.
As long as you keep using the right practices, the residual direct traffic will be the new benchmark for your direct traffic percentages.
Once you have enough data (after a few weeks, preferably), you can play around with these new sets of direct traffic numbers to get more insights into how valuable it is to you.
The easiest way to do is to break the latest direct traffic channels (post fixing) down into segments.
As a starting point, try creating custom segments for mobile and desktop. See which landing pages are working on both platforms, what the percentage of returning visitors is, what the goal flow indicates and so on.
Go a step further – explore features like User ID to see how direct traffic users behave. This will, hopefully, help you maximise the lifetime customer value across sessions and devices. We will discuss the conversion aspects of direct traffic in a bit.
The easiest way would be to manually send a couple of hits to your website that represent all the fixes.
For example, if you’ve migrated to HTTPS, check whether your backlinks from HTTPS hosts are being tracked under referrals. If you are implementing URL tagging, manually enter the tagged URLs in your browser’s incognito window to see if that reflects within your GA dashboard.
If you’re using Google Analytics to its fullest potential, you probably have set up multiple goals . You may also already be tracking conversions on a daily/weekly basis.
So far so good.
But how does Google Analytics treat direct traffic conversions? Are these tracked correctly?
Chances are that you have been underestimating the impact of direct traffic on conversions all along.
The reason is simple. Under the conventional marketing model, GA credits direct traffic with a conversion when the visitor’s first AND last interaction is direct.
So, if I visit your website from a bookmark, immediately checkout and buy something, you’ll get one direct traffic conversion.
But, if I visit your website from a bookmark, bounce, re-visit after 3 months by clicking on one of your ads and complete the purchase, the conversion will be credited to the ad channel.
Therefore, when you check out a conventional conversions report (Home > Conversions > Goals > Overview), you’ll be underestimating the impact of direct traffic.
Here’s an screenshot from a client’s GA account. Take a look at the conventional conversion percentage for this goal attributed to direct traffic:
The best way to understand the real impact of direct traffic on conversions is to use multi-channel funnels (Home > Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Overview).
We won’t be getting into the details of how to best use multi-channel funnels to track down each and every conversion. For now, let’s just stick to how to determine the role direct traffic plays in conversions.
Here’s the multi-channel funnels report for the same goal.
As you can see, direct traffic plays a far bigger role in conversions that aren’t attributed to it.
Here’s a comparison of first and last touch interaction conversions for direct traffic. This tells us the relative position of direct traffic on conversion paths. (Home > Conversions > Attribution > Model Comparison Tools).
Here’s a visual representation of such conversions (Home > Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Top Conversion Paths).
To sum up these data sets for direct traffic:
1. Conventional conversions: 3,688
2. First-interaction conversions: 5,707
3. Last-interaction conversions: 7,589
4. Multi-channel conversions involving direct traffic: 8,334
Reducing direct traffic adds the much-needed clarity to your traffic reports.
The best part is – even the easiest of fixes like URL tagging can go a long way in this respect.
Direct traffic is not a bad thing. What’s bad is not analysing it. Dig just a little deeper than you normally would and you’ll see why it matters.
Over the years, we have set up elaborate home-grown checks and balances to analyse and optimise direct traffic channels for hundreds of clients. You can check out the details of our advanced analytics reporting services here. To request a proposal, let us know a little about your business by filling in the proposal below. For any other information, you can reach out to us here.