Anyone who has a digital marketing strategy in place will be looking to assess its effectiveness by analysing acquisition reports in Google Analytics (GA). These help you to see the sources that are resulting in traffic to your website (and ultimately leads and sales), enabling you to figure out the return on investment (ROI) that your marketing strategies are having. While reports from GA are useful, you can hit a stumbling block when you see peaks and troughs of “Direct” traffic in your reports.
Direct traffic is often misunderstood, but understanding it and fixing issues that can result in other channels being mis-attributed to direct is crucial. In this article, we’ve outlined the ways in which you can minimise the effect that direct traffic is having on your Analytics data and reports.
What is direct traffic in Google Analytics?
Direct traffic is one of four types of traffic that Google Analytics tracks by default (the others being organic, paid and referral). It is sometimes defined as users typing the URL of the website directly into their browser, or reaching a site by clicking on a saved bookmarked. But actually it’s much more than that.
According to Google’s own guidelines, “a session is processed as direct traffic when no information about the referral source is available, or when the referring source or search term has been configured to be ignored”. In other words, Google classes traffic as direct if it can’t classify it as belonging to one of the other channels.
Having direct traffic to your site is obviously no bad thing; direct traffic – like all traffic assuming it leads to conversions – is good traffic! The problem lies with the way in which Google Analytics reports direct traffic and, more specifically, what Analytics reports as direct traffic.
What are direct traffic’s sources?
Looking at acquisition reports in Analytics and seeing peaks and troughs in ‘direct’ traffic can be frustrating. It difficult to know exactly what it is, what caused it and, due to this, difficult to attribute increases (or decreases) in such traffic to your online marketing and SEO efforts.
There are, however, a number of direct traffic sources that we know about. Some of these can be corrected, so that Analytics attributes this traffic to the ‘correct’ channel. Other sources of Analytics direct traffic can’t be resolved – but knowing them can help you analyse your data more effectively.
1. Manual URL entry and bookmarks
Manual URL entry and bookmark clicks are what most people commonly associate with a website’s direct traffic. Traffic to your site will be reported as direct if a user types your website URL directly into their browser or if they click on a bookmark that they have previously saved.
You don’t need to “fix” this kind of direct traffic – ideally, this would exclusively be the type of traffic that is reported as direct.
2. Referrals from HTTPS to HTTP
When someone clicks on a link from a secure (HTTPS) site to a non-secure (HTTP) site, no referral data is passed. The visitor landing on your HTTP site is, therefore, tracked as ‘direct’ by Analytics.
You can often diagnose this by comparing your referral data with your direct data in your acquisition reports. If you see a sudden drop in referrals but an increase in direct traffic, it may be the case that your referrer has migrated to a secure site.
Ideally, you don’t want this kind of data in your reports. The solution would be to move to HTTPS, as referral data to your site will then be correctly attributed (regardless of whether it is coming from a secure or non-secure source). Getting rid of mis-attributed referral traffic from your acquisition reports is, then, just another benefit of migrating to HTTPS.
3. Untagged links from apps and documents
As mentioned earlier, Google attributes a visitor to the direct channel if it can’t figure out the referral source. Google Analytics can usually figure out the referral source from one website to another fairly easily, but things get tricky when the click is from an app or a PDF document.
Apps and documents can’t be crawled and tracked in the same way as websites. This means you need to be more careful when sharing links in apps (like WhatsApp, Skype, and some other social messaging apps) or when including them in PDFs, assuming you want the traffic from these sources to be attributed to the correct source.
The best way to handle traffic from such sources is to use UTM tags. A UTM code is basically a tag that you add to a URL in order to track a source, medium, and other campaign information. This enables Analytics to accurately tell you where searchers came from.
You should be adding UTM campaign parameters whenever you share URLs, especially on social media, as it means that Analytics more accurately attributes the clicks, and you can more efficiently measure the return on your marketing spend. Luckily, adding UTM tags is very straightforward, especially if you use tools like Raven’s URL builder; it just needs to be done consistently.
The best way of handling this is to ensure that you are using 301 server-side redirects rather than client-side redirects, while making sure you are auditing the redirects used across your site. In a similar way to migrating to HTTPS, this is also a best practice recommendation that will help your site’s SEO in other ways too.
5. Broken tracking codes
If a user lands on a page on your site which has a missing or broken tracking code, this can cause their visit to be tracked as direct when they land on the next page in their journey.
For Analytics, the above user’s first hit would be the second page they visit and this would appear as a self-referral from your own domain. Assuming your own domain is on the referral exclusion list, this user’s session will be tracked as direct.
Users land on this page without tracking code. They click on a link to a deeper page which does have tracking code. From GA’s perspective, the first hit of the session is the second page visited, meaning that the referrer appears as your own website (i.e. a self-referral). If your domain is on the referral exclusion list (as per default configuration), the session is bucketed as direct.
As with some of the other direct traffic sources, the best way of correcting this is by thoroughly auditing your site – check that all pages have tracking codes, and make sure that they’re working correctly.
6. Organic traffic
This is the most problematic – and potentially worrying from an SEO perspective – sources that can be attributed to direct by GA; organic traffic. Unfortunately, not all browsers report where a visitor came from when they land on a website and this means that a certain percentage of direct traffic is actually organic.
To work out exactly how much direct traffic was actually organic, Groupon conducted an experiment. They found that up to 60% of direct traffic was actually organic. Furthermore, they found that this differed depending on the browser type, with traffic from Internet Explorer – for example – reporting organic as direct in about 75% of cases. This is clearly an issue if you’re looking to work out the ROI of any SEO efforts, as you’ll be underestimating the its value if you are only looking at organic growth.
There isn’t a quick-and-easy solution though. In order to minimise the impact that this is having on your reporting, it’s best to fully analyse where direct traffic is landing. Assuming you’ve resolved problems that are causing traffic to be mis-attributed to direct (e.g. broken tracking codes and missing UTM parameters), then you’ll need to classify direct traffic according to where it is most likely to have come from. For example, direct traffic to your homepage is more likely to be from manual URL entry, while direct traffic to deeper pages (subcategories, blog articles with long URLs, etc.) is more likely to be from other channels, such as social or organic.
If you’re looking to minimise the effect that direct traffic is having on your data and reports, then the best starting point is to conduct a full technical SEO audit. Get in touch with us to find out how we can improve your Google Analytics set up so that you can begin measuring the ROI on your marketing efforts more effectively.