Direct Traffic in Analytics Software: It’s Not what You Think It Is

Direct Traffic

It’s amazing how often marketers take for granted the labels that Google puts on the analytics data. And one of the most misunderstood sources in the analytics world is “direct traffic”.

The general opinion is that direct traffic is a user who types the URL of your website directly into the browser address bar.

But is that really the case?

Certain types of web traffic will never pass referral information to GA. This makes it extremely difficult to know where the traffic actually came from.

That creates a major problem because Google labels all of this traffic as direct, which is why most analytics software will attribute so much of your traffic to the “direct” source.

In early 2014, marketers from Groupon conducted an experiment. They de-indexed their site from Google for about 6 hours. Usually, that wouldn’t be a smart thing to do but because they already had a lot of authority – and Google is pretty good at quickly re-indexing sites – they decided to do it anyway.

As they started tracking their analytics data, guess what happened? Their “direct” traffic fell 60%, along with their organic traffic.

After a series of tests, they concluded that Google was actually counting a lot of the organic traffic as being direct. See the whole experiment here.

That’s a wake-up call for us marketers: we should be more diligent to do some deep research on metrics that analytics software is providing to us.

What Is “Direct Traffic” Anyway?

There are 5 sources of traffic that can give you non-referable, untrackable traffic that will count as direct traffic: search, social media, mobile, non-web and sources modified by technology.

1. Search

Search traffic counted as direct

Every app with search functionality, including the Android default app, passes non-referable traffic. When a user types in a query from the main screen of his smartphone – and he clicks your link in the search results pages – Google Analytics will count this user as direct traffic.

2. Mobile Apps

Traffic coming from mobile apps is counted as direct too

Your analytics software attributes every visitor from a mobile app to direct traffic. This includes messaging apps (WhatsApp, Viber) as well as mobile video games.

3. Social Media Traffic

Social media traffic

Have you noticed how social media networks mostly use URL shorteners such as Bit.ly to shorten the links? Well, all of that traffic in your dashboard is direct – GA doesn’t attribute it to Social sources.

4. Non-web Sources

Non-web traffic counts as direct

Word documents, PDF documents, Powerpoint documents – none of these pass on referral information either.

Although the time of desktop apps is coming to an end, there are still some popular ones – like Skype. All the traffic that you get from Skype is going to count as direct traffic to GA.

Finally, desktop mail clients (Outlook, Thunderbird) will also send you direct traffic. Interesting, isn’t it?

5. Sources Modified by Technology

Traffic sources modified by technology

Web applications that run over the HTTPS protocol pass on non-referable traffic too – if your site is on the HTTP protocol. Because Gmail uses HTTPS, every visitor that clicks a link (that’s not properly tagged as a campaign but we’ll get to that later) in your email is going to count as direct traffic.

Did you know that you can put a rel=”noreferrer” attribute into every single one of your links? That would make them not pass referrer information, making all the traffic from your website direct traffic.

The last category is the redirects. There’s no guarantee that a 301 or 302 redirect will pass any referrer info, either.

What’s the Problem with Not Being Able to Properly Identify Where Traffic Comes From?

There’s a saying that “if you’re trying to sell to everyone, you will sell to no one,” which does a nice job of illustrating why segmentation is one of the most important concepts in digital marketing. Every marketing campaign needs to implement segmentation in order to be truly effective.

And that’s why it’s such a huge problem when software is working against you, showing you an incorrect referral source for large amounts of your traffic.

Direct Traffic Shown as Campaign and Organic Traffic

The problem also goes in the other direction: if you’re using campaign tagging – and you should be – the person who clicks on your link will have a cookie set up on their computer, which can last for up to 6 months. This creates a potential issue because during this timeframe the cookie will cause them to be attributed as direct traffic even if they type your url directly into their browser.

Branded Search Is Direct Traffic

How come?

What’s a typical behavior of someone who sees a billboard ad for your product? There’s a good chance he won’t remember the URL of your site – unless it’s really short and catchy.

What they do instead is Google whatever they can remember from your ad. For example, let’s say you were a cleaning company by the name of “Cleaning Ducks” in New Jersey. The potential prospect would come home and type something like “Clean ducks cleaning NJ” into Google.

In reality, that’s just direct traffic. It’s not organic. But because search engines and analytics software are not yet smart enough to understand this, you’ll get false info about the source. Check out this article by Ryan Stewart on Business2Community about branded search traffic actually being direct traffic.

What to Do?

Luckily, there are a few things you could do to alleviate the “direct” traffic problem.

1. Tag Your Marketing Campaigns

The easiest solution is to enforce strict campaign tagging rules on every project and every campaign. It’s not that difficult to do: you just need to create a spreadsheet where you will input:

  1. Campaign start date
  2. Campaign end date
  3. Campaign name
  4. Source
  5. Medium
  6. Content

The last row should be a formula that creates a tagged URL for you. If you’re not sure how to create a spreadsheet like that, don’t worry – the guys from Lunametrics have created a Google spreadsheet template that you can use.

You will then send the spreadsheet to all marketing team members, and remind them to use the spreadsheet for all campaigns.

2. Extract Social Traffic

In order to get the amount of social traffic that hides inside of the “direct” bucket, you need to subtract all of the traffic that landed on the home page and your main category pages from the total direct traffic. Here’s the formula:

( Traffic to homepage + Traffic to main pages ) – Total direct traffic = Untrackable social media traffic

Your visitors won’t type in long URLs – that’s the main premise behind this technique. If your homepage and main category URLs are short enough, they might type those in, but there’s a much bigger chance they actually clicked on long URLs on social media channels.

3. Extract Search Data

First of all, you should find all your landing pages that haven’t been tagged. Then, you apply the “First time visitors” segment. That number will represent the number of visitors who came to your site via search, which will distinguish them from the “direct” segment.

4. Use Non-multi Channel Funnel Reports

They ignore direct traffic and attribute conversions directly to the last known source (other than direct, of course).

5. Use the Secondary Dimension for Best Guess

Sometimes, you won’t be able to tag your links. Guest posting is a good example of this scenario. It would be very suspicious for Google to find your tagged link on a guest post as their algorithm will likely think you’re trying to game the system for links, and there’s a good chance your site will be penalized.

In that case, here’s what you can do:

  1. In your Analytics dashboard, choose a very short time span: something like a week or 3 days.
  2. Go to the source/medium report and choose the landing page as a secondary dimension. If you can connect your landing pages to your recent campaigns – and their sources – you’ll know where the traffic is coming from.

Conclusion

Taking the “Direct Traffic” metrics reported by your analytics tool, especially if we’re talking about Google Analytics, can be very misleading.

At face value, you’d think that “direct traffic” equates to the people who type  a URL directly into a browser, but this is not the case at all.

Without truly understanding how direct traffic is reported, there’s a huge amount of data that will remain hidden from you, preventing you from creating effective marketing campaigns, if you don’t know how to extract and how to analyze “Direct” traffic properly.