What is Direct Traffic?

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Knowing how your visitors ended up on your website is core to understanding which marketing activities are actually working. While some traffic sources are straightforward, one, in particular, confuses many. Direct traffic is the traffic source I get asked questions about the most. Direct traffic refers to more than the users that type your URL into their browser. As you’ll learn in the video below, it can have big implications for your marketing reports. 

Source used in creating this video: https://moz.com/blog/guide-to-direct-traffic-google-analytics

Video Transcript: 

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Like I said in the intro, we’re going to be answering this question, what is direct traffic? And we’re going to try to have a deeper understanding of what we can do about it to ensure that our analytics is set up properly. So let’s go.

What’s Direct Traffic?

Google Analytics will report a traffic source of direct if they have no information about how that user ended up on your site. There can be a lot of reasons that that user got to your site or how they got to your site, but if Google doesn’t have that information, that information wasn’t passed to them correctly, they’re going to show up as direct traffic.

Now as you can realize, this can cause some issues, especially when it comes to reporting and making sure that you know which campaigns are the most effective. We really want to understand how people end up in direct traffic and then what we can do to make sure that our analytics are as clean as possible.

If you want to learn more on this topic, you can check out this blog, which I’m going to link to in the description section. It’s a great blog that’s on moz.com on direct traffic, and I’ll be using some of the references in that blog in this video today. Let’s keep going.

How Google Processes Data

When we look at how Google processes data, this is a breakdown of what that looks like. They’re going to walk a user through this path when they’re figuring out who they are. And then if they don’t meet certain requirements, they kind of go down the list and then get dropped in the direct bucket. The first thing that Google looks at is to add parameters.

What that means is they’re looking at, did this person come from a Google ad account or maybe a double-click account or Bing ads, and then it’s going to pull that campaign data based on how you have your tracking set up in the ad platform. This is why it’s important that you have that set up correctly. That way you get all of the information.

Let’s say they’re not from ads, but maybe you’ve used a UTM that has a campaign. Google is going to start looking at the campaign overrides, and then they’re going to look at the UTM parameters and see what information is being passed. They start at the top and they start working their way down.

Next, they’re going to look at the referral source, did this come from referral traffic, did it come from another website or a social media site? Then Google is going to start parsing that information. If they came from a search engine site, they should be able to have that UTM data and pass that off. If that came from a website or maybe a social site, they should have that information. And then maybe they can look and say, this user actually has been here before, but the session timed out within the certain limit that’s been set, and let’s pull back that information and we can now sign that.

If they don’t have the right information in each one of these steps, they end up in the direct bucket. Even though they’ve ended up in the direct bucket, some of these up above could actually have applied, but if they’re not set up correctly and properly, they’ve ended up now in direct, which is not always the case.

What Causes Direct Traffic?

Well, there are six main things that we’re going to look at. The first one is manual entry. The second one is your HTTP to HTTP redirect. The third one is missing or broken tracking codes. The fourth is improper redirections. Five are non-web documents. And six is dark social. So let’s talk about each one of these, what they actually mean, and what we can do if anything, about it to clean up our analytics.

Manual Entry

The first is a manual entry, and this is when somebody would type your address directly into the search bar, or not the search bar, but the browser. There’s not really anything you could do about this. If somebody does that, then they are truly a direct visit, because they’ve directly typed in your URL. But if you notice, if you pull an analytics report and you look at the URLs direct, a lot of those URLs are not your main domain and there are sometimes very long domain strings. That’s one of those key triggers that say, hey, this is probably not from direct traffic.

HTTP to HTTP Redirect

One of the issues that can mess up your direct traffic is the HTTP to HTTPS link structure. When a user follows a link on a secure page, that’s a page that has HTTPS, and they follow that link to a non-secure page, the referral data gets dropped. Google drops that data because you’re going from secure to non-secure, which means it’s dropping the UTM, it’s dropping the tracking, and now that’s going to end up in direct traffic instead of referral traffic. This is another reason why it’s really important to make sure that you have your site on HTTPS, that you have an SSL certificate installed, that it’s up to date, that it’s working, and that it’s set up properly.

We’re not going to talk about setting up an SSL in this video, but it’s important to do so not just from a security standpoint, which is extremely important, it’s also important because Google is giving credit to that from an organic standpoint and they also will make your page look unsecure, which then people will not want to visit your page but also can mess up your data because they’re going to drop that referral data and you’re just going to see a lot of direct traffic.

This is a big problem for a lot of sites, but it’s also a fix that you can make that’s not that difficult, and you should be making this fixed anyways from just a security standpoint. It’ll have a really big positive effect on your ability to track your referral traffic. Websites that are pointing to you and linking to you and driving traffic to you.

Broken and Missing Tracking Codes

The next one is broken and missing tracking codes. Tracking codes or UTMs are used to pass campaign and specific information into GA, Google Analytics. This is what helps it, gives it the proper category categorization. We talked about before, this week, you can put campaigns and you can put your keywords, your source, your medium, and you can really define what those should be. Now, good campaign tracking or good campaign tagging is something that you can control. And you shouldn’t go crazy, there’s a lot of things that you can possibly do, but I would keep it simple and have a good format that’s consistent across the board, it’s going to make sure that you can track all your campaigns and the meaningful campaign data that you want to track right inside of GA.

But if they’re not set up properly, you don’t have the structure done properly, it can really throw your data off and honestly, it’s going to jump in and direct, right, and that’s the problem. We don’t want an indirect, we want it in the correct source. We went in the correct medium and we want to have the correct campaign metrics being passed along with that URL, that visit.

You can use Google’s campaign builder or marketing tools, like HubSpot, which will also have those UTM builders within them. Make sure that you have a system down and then slow down and make sure that everything’s tagged properly, test your UTMs, and then implement them across the board. This is going to help make sure that the traffic ends up in the right bucket.

Improper Redirections

The next thing are improper redirections. Using meta refreshes or JavaScript redirects can wipe out your referral data. That traffic would end up in direct. Make sure that you’re using the right types of redirects and then make sure that you’re auditing your files frequently and that they’re set up correctly. You should avoid things like redirect chains. This is where you have blog one which redirects to blog two, but blog two actually redirects to blog four. Well now you’ve created a chain because those two links are actually going to blog four, but the first one has to pass through a second link. And again, that can wipe out that referral data, it’s very confusing from just an SEO and a crawler standpoint as well, but it can also mess up your data.

Map out your websites, make sure that they’re single hop, that they’re server side 301s, that they’re pointing correctly, right to where you want it to go, that they’re going directly to that page, so that the redirect can then pass the information as quickly as possible, but also can prevent it from losing all those campaign metrics on the front end.

If you’re using vanity URLs to redirect, make sure you have the UTM parameters set up correctly and test before you implement those. Maybe it’s a Bitly or something like that, or maybe you are using a vanity URL, for that purpose, that you have the UTMs plugged in correctly so that, they don’t end up indirect but they’re coming from the correct source.

Non-web Documents

One type of content that’s hard to track are things like Word documents and decks and PDFs, and they can pass referral information, but you need to be meticulous about how you set that up. When users click these, by default it’s going to appear as direct traffic. Now PDFs are crawlable and searchable, but they’re not technically web pages. This can be fixed a little bit, not all the way. I’m trying to be as positive as I can here.

Some of this isn’t avoidable, you’re going to run into these issues. But if you are creating offers and guides and decks, make sure that you embed the hyperlinks with UTM parameters, if you can. I would try those in there, test them out, see that it’s being passed within the browser, see that’s being passed into analytics, so hopefully that you can pass some of that information correctly into Google Analytics. Even if it does show up in direct bucket, you can have the campaign parameters so you can at least sort out your direct traffic and get a little bit more meaningful analysis from it.

Dark Social

And the last thing we’re looking at is dark social. This is the method of social sharing, which can’t actually be attributed as easily to a particular source. We’ve got social tools like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest, which are these major sites, but we also have these social tools, which the majority of the sharing happens on these tools, like email and texting and Skype and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and so people are working inside of these platforms to communicate and share. As you can see, this is a pretty interesting statistic here, that 84% of this sharing comes from, what would be called, dark social. So it’s hard to track.

A good first step though is to provide properly configured sharing buttons for these platforms. You may have seen the social share buttons on your website, Facebook, Twitter, but creating ones that are properly built for WhatsApp and Slack, that way you can actually pass the URL information with a UTM.

UTMs are really helpful to make sure that these types of links, and these types of traffic get put in the right buckets. And even if they’re in a certain source like Direct, you can then begin to analyze your data using campaign parameters. You can go in and say, what campaign did this come from, and you can still find some meaningful information. Direct traffic can be a very powerful traffic source if you understand a little bit more about those groups. But if you let all your traffic float around and end up in the buckets that Google is going to put them in, it’s not always going to serve you. This goes for big companies as well as small businesses who can really glean a lot of insights about their end-users using Google Analytics.

I hope this cleared up direct traffic for you, understanding how it happens, and also some of the things that you can do to make sure that you have the right data in your analytics to make informed decisions. If you have any questions, anything to add, or anything below that would help this conversation, please comment. We would love to continue that conversation online. I don’t profess to be the number one expert on the web on any of this stuff, but as I learn things, I like to share them and help other people who might have been in the same situation. Please comment below, we would love to continue to keep that conversation going. And until next time, Happy Marketing.

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