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Where is my "direct" traffic really coming from?

Ellie Gunville
by Ellie Gunville on May 19, 2016 9:54:00 AM

I've blogged and spoken about Google Analytics quite a bit over the past several years, usually focusing on the amazing reporting and tracking features it offers and how businesses can use it to take their websites and marketing strategies to the next level. And while Google Analytics remains an invaluable tool, it doesn't come without its share of imperfections.

I recently had a client who had some content on their website picked up by Buzzfeed. Great! Shortly after that article was picked up, I headed over to Google Analytics to watch the traffic pour in. Much to my surprise, Buzzfeed was nowhere to be found in their traffic sources. Yet, the article that was picked up was receiving thousands of visits daily. After some further analysis, I discovered that all of this Buzzfeed traffic was being reported as direct traffic instead of social or referral traffic as I expected. How come?

Most people assume direct traffic comes from those users who type your website URL in directly or click on a saved bookmark link. In other words, the users didn't arrive at your site by clicking a link on some other website or search engine.  Well it turns out that the term "direct traffic" is used pretty loosely within Google Analytics.

If Google Analytics is unable to determine where a visitor came from before arriving at your website, then that visitor gets grouped in with direct traffic. This might occur when:

  1. A users types in your website URL directly.

  2. A users clicks on a saved bookmark that takes them directly to your website.

  3. A users clicks a link to you website within Outlook or some other desktop email software.

  4. A users clicks a link from Microsoft Office, a PDF document or any desktop software.

  5. A user clicks on a link from a secured site (https://) to your non-secured site (http://) – Which happened to be the case with my Buzzfeed example.

  6. A users accesses your website from a shortened URL, like bit.ly.

  7. A users clicks a link from a mobile app.

  8. A users accesses your site from an organic listing. An experiment performed by Groupon showed that as much as 60% of organic traffic could be coming from organic search.

So clearly there are many scenarios where users aren't typing in your URL or using a bookmark but are still be recorded as direct traffic. Perhaps Google Analytics should reclassify "direct" traffic as "we can't tell where this came from" traffic?

Knowing what we know now, what can we do to try and better understand direct traffic? And what steps can we take to try and address this problem and ensure that our website traffic is being attributed properly?

As a starting point, take a look at your top Landing Pages report for direct traffic only. This is going to tell you the pages of your website that the direct traffic is arriving on. The majority of your direct traffic should be coming in on your home page. If you see a high volume of traffic to an interior page of your website, it's pretty safe to assume that those visitors didn't actually come "direct".  It would be highly unlikely for a user to manually type in a long URL for an interior page of your website.

Then, start to think about where instead these users might be coming from. Did you recently send out an email blast with a link to a specific product page on your website? Are you seeing that page within your top Landing Pages report for direct traffic? If so, you can probably assume that those visits are actually from your email campaign, and not direct.

Next, with a little extra work you can tell Google Analytics how you want *some* of this traffic to be classified. Any traffic that you have control over should be using tagged links to access your site. This means adding UTM parameters to all links included in your emails, word documents, PDFs, eBooks, etc. When you tag these links, you're giving Google Analytics the information they need to properly classify your traffic.

The easiest was to do this is to use Google’s URL builder.


Using this tool, I turned http://blog.epower.com/topic/google-analytics into http://blog.epower.com/topic/google-analytics?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=May%202016.

I will then use this tagged URL in our May 2016 email blast, and any recipients who click that link will be classified as "email" traffic. Without the tagged URL, I would risk having my email traffic lumped in with direct instead, making it extremely difficult to calculate the value of my email marketing campaign.

Be proactive and consistent in tagging links to your website to help ensure more accurate Google Analytics data and to avoid having to backtrack and manually pull out direct traffic that wasn't attributed correctly.

Google Analytics continues to be a powerful way to track and measure website performance; however, just having it installed and checking in on the data every couple of months isn't enough. It's important to understand all of the factors that can impact traffic data and to analyze that data regularly to identify red flags that need to be addressed.

Let our Google Analytics experts help! If you're overwhelmed with Google Analytics or not sure how you should be using it to improve your brand's presence online, contact us today to learn more!

free infographic the history of google analytics

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Ellie Gunville
Written by Ellie Gunville
As the Manager of Online Advertising at E-Power Marketing, Ellie focuses on developing targeted advertising campaigns to boost sales, increase trade show and event registrations drive leads and strengthen brand recognition. She has become an expert in all things online advertising, and expanded her focus to also include Google Analytics and conversion optimization.

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