Analytics

What Is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics and Why You Need to Take It More Seriously

by Tom Buckland January 16, 2019

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.

How?

Let’s see!

 

Table of Contents

What Is Direct Traffic? (Direct Traffic Google Analytics Definition)

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).

 

Direct Traffic & Other Traffic Channels in Google Analytics - HQ SEO

 

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%.

 

But Why Is There Direct Traffic At All? Can’t Google Just Buckle Up and Give Me a Better Report?

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.

 

What Is a Direct Traffic Source?

Every traffic channel that does not pass on referrer data to Google Analytics is a potential source of direct traffic.

 

Here Are the Most Common Direct Traffic Sources

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.

 

1. Literally, the Direct Traffic (AKA Type-in Traffic)

HQ SEO Typewriter Screedbot

 

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.

 

Thumb Rules for Type-in Traffic

  1. If your domain name is short (<6 characters) and your brand is popular, there’s a good chance people are typing it in.
  2. In many cases, organic searches are followed by type-in traffic. You can hunt these down by looking at Conversion Paths (Home > Goals > Multi-Channel Funnels > Conversion Paths).
  3. The percentage of new users for direct traffic segment tells us a lot. If it is not too high, you can almost be sure that people are typing the URL in or visiting via bookmarks. The case for this is made stronger by browsers that auto-fill the URLs based on history (like Chrome does). 

2. Bookmarks and Other Browser Features

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.

 

3. Documents

HQ SEO PDF Based Link Direct Traffic

Links from PDF, Office and Other Documents, Brochure and Email Attachment Drive a Lot of Direct Traffic.
 

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.

 

4. Secure Referrer to Non-Secure Destination (HTTPS to HTTP Traffic)

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?

 

Important points to note:

  1. HTTPS to HTTP referrer data is withheld for security reasons. All other types of referrals are passed on okay and will reflect under appropriate heads in your GA account (HTTP to HTTP, HTTP to HTTPS, HTTPS to HTTPS).
  2. This rule generally doesn’t apply to social referrers because the referrals from these sites are redirected appropriately. Reddit, for example, switches their outbound subdomain (out.reddit.com) to HTTP if the destination is HTTP. This brings us to the next point.

5.  Private Shares (AKA Dark Social)

Dark Social Direct Traffic - Private Sharing - HQ SEO Stats

 

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.

  1. If you use the ‘Share’ button to IM the the link to someone’s WhatsApp, it’ll mostly be tracked and counted as social. These links usually contain the ‘share’ attribute. 
  2. If you copy + paste a link from your browser into WhatsApp, the app itself will be the referrer and pass on no referrer data. This will then count as a private share.

It’s a huge deal – because more than 80% of actual social traffic is estimated to come from private shares. Surprisingly, 96% of marketers do NOTHING about this.

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.

  1. You need to know where the sharing happens so that you can build a better content strategy.
  2. These numbers can obviously have a huge impact on the way you calculate your marketing ROIs, especially if you’re running content marketing campaigns. A quick tip – create separate segments for your important content assets and keep an eye on their direct traffic performance. We will talk about conversions towards the end of this post. 

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.

 

6. Apps

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.

 

7. Browsers and URL Attributes

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).

 

8. Faulty Redirects

JavaScript-based redirects are often to blame here. The longer the redirect chain, the more the chaos.

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).

 

9. Miscellaneous

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.

 

Is Direct Traffic Bad?

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:

  1. Google Analytics is meant to return data that helps. Having a bunch of visitors clubbed together as unknown entities doesn’t help at all.
  2. If you are a data control-freak like every good marketer should be, you want to know exactly what’s working and what isn’t. So, you need a better hold on your direct traffic numbers.

 

How Do You Reduce Direct Traffic? (Direct Traffic Solutions)

It’s important to understand two points here:

 

  1. There will always be some direct traffic (until Google comes up with smarter, more intensive tracking algos).
  2. The only way to ‘fix’ direct traffic is to reduce it. While doing it, it’s important to weigh the pros of cons in terms of efforts you need to put in and the analytical edge it’ll give you in the long run.

 

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).

 

Solution #1: Migrate to HTTPS (ASAP)

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).

This is particularly important if you’re building links, doing digital PR and implementing content marketing. This is why:

  1. When you actively build links, you’ve invested a ton of resources into the campaign – time, money and more. You want the best returns on every single dollar/pound.
  2. Now consider this scenario: Most of the host websites for your links are going to be HTTPS. For SEO reasons, you can’t really tag backlinks with medium/source tags. If your website is HTTP, all the referral traffic these links drive will be counted as ‘direct traffic’. You’ll never be able to measure the impact of your campaigns.

The easiest way to avoid all these issues is to just switch to HTTPS (the right way).

 

Solution #2: Tag Every Campaign URL

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!

 

 

How Does Campaign Tagging Reduce Direct Traffic?

This is what a well-built and tagged campaign URL looks like:

 

URL Tagging Using Google Campaign URL Builder - HQ SEO - Direct Traffic

 

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’.

 

How to Build and Tag Campaign URLs Properly?

It couldn’t be easier.

Just use Google’s very own URL builder – all it takes is 15 seconds. There’s also a Chrome extension for it.

 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).

 

Making Tagged URLs Presentable – Vanity Links and Shortened URLs

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.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say we are marketing a Christmas offer for  www.example.com  using old-school flyers and posters. You can’t obviously create posters that say  www.example.com/offers/christmas-2019/luxury-watches/limited-edition . It looks ugly and won’t fit in the frame anyway. You need something shorter, catchier, more sellable. Something like –  www.example.com/christmas 

I will first create a tagged URL (as we discussed). Important to use right parameters here – source=offline, medium=301, campaign name= Christmas.

Done.

I’ll then ask my developer to 301 redirect  www.example.com/christmas  to the tagged URL.

So, every hit to /christmas will be tracked as a Christmas campaign referral brought in by the flyer.

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.

 

Solution #3: Managing the Redirects

I won’t get too technical here.

The only point I want to make is – refrain from using JavaScript-based long-chain redirects wherever possible. Use solid, robust server-side 301 redirects that don’t strip the referrer data in the process.

 

Solution #4: Block All Internal Traffic

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.

 

Solution #5: Check If Your GA Code Is Firing Properly On ALL Pages

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.

 

Solution #6: Desperate Measures – Talk to Your Visitors

It usually doesn’t come to this.

 

How Did You Hear About Us - Direct Traffic Form - HQ SEO

 

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.

 

Solution #7: Break Your Direct Traffic Down into Segments

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.

 

Direct Traffic Segments - Mobile vs Desktop - HQ SEO

 

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.

 

 

How to Verify That These Direct Traffic Solutions Are Working?

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 your GA cookies aren’t returning the data in real-time, go old-school. Here’s how:

1. Visit the tagged URL (I’m using Chrome here).

2: Right click anywhere on page > Inspect element

3: Click the Network tab.

4: Reload the page (CTRL + R)

5: Find the URL for the page and open the ‘Headers’ tab.

6: Scroll down to the bottom and see if the referrer, medium, campaign name and other tags appear as you want them to.

Direct Traffic and Conversions: How Do You Analyse the Impact of Direct Traffic On Conversions?

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:

 

Direct Traffic Conversions - HQ SEO

 

Using Multi-Channel Funnels to Better Understand 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.

 

Multi Channel Funnels Report Google Analytics - Direct Traffic Conversions - HQ SEO

 

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).

 

First Last Interaction Attribution - Direct Traffic Google Analytics - HQ SEO

 

Here’s a visual representation of such conversions (Home > Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Top Conversion Paths).

 

Top Conversion Paths - Google Analytics - Direct Traffic - HQ SEO

 

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

 

The point is simple: we all tend to underestimate direct traffic in various ways – especially when it comes to conversions. By reducing direct traffic, you create conversion paths that are all well-defined. You know the exact points of entry and exit for users – giving you a massive optimisation edge.

Conclusion: Direct Traffic Is a Delicate Puzzle. Solve It and You’ll Be Rewarded.

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.

 

Need Help With Direct Traffic?

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.

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About Tom

Hi, I'm Tom, Founder & Director of HQ SEO. I live and breathe SEO. I hope you enjoy my findings. Interested in SEO?
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