What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics and How to Analyze It?

Author's avatar Analytics Dec 10, 2020 15 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    Ah, direct traffic, one of the greatest myths in Google Analytics.

    If you think direct traffic is caused exclusively by users typing a website address into their browser (or clicking on a bookmark), this post is for you.

    And, if you think direct traffic is somehow bad for your site, again, this post is for you.

    Let’s go straight to the point.

    Google Analytics Acquisition Dashboard Template by Databox

    What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?

    Direct traffic consists of all sessions Google Analytics cannot determine the referring source of. Direct traffic is not only caused by users directly typing a website address into their browser, or clicking on a bookmark.

    According to Google Analytics, 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.

    direct traffic

    To put things simply, we can say that direct traffic is actually unknown traffic.

    Is there a way to identify the type of users who cause direct traffic surges?

    Katrina Dalao of Referral Rock explains, “Direct traffic is caused by some of your most loyal, high-value visitors.” 

    So mostly users that visited your website initially through social media, email, blog, or any other marketing channel and then decide to revisit you a week later by directly visiting your website. 

    Dalao further adds, “It’s best to analyze this traffic in detail, and anticipate the needs of these visitors. What are they looking for? How are they moving through your site?

    For example, you can check which page they landed on, how many pages they visited (page depth), and how long they stayed on your site. When it comes to your site’s content, these help you to see what your top visitors are enjoying the most.”

    Related: 7 Ways to Use Content Groupings in Google Analytics to Better Understand Your Site’s Content

    What Causes Direct Traffic?

    There are lots of different reasons why you might see sudden spikes in your direct traffic. As mentioned, one cause is when a user manually types in your website URL in their browser and visits your website. 

    We recently conducted a survey and asked people what percentage of their company’s traffic is classified as ‘Direct’ every month. 

    Almost 40% of respondents said 20% or less, and 30% of respondents said 30% to 50% of their company’s traffic is classified as ‘Direct’ every month.

    what percentage of your company's traffic is classified as 'Direct' every month?

    While some of these sessions are directly caused by marketing efforts, others happen when sessions are missing traffic and campaign source data.

    Some of these causes include:

    • Bot traffic

    Bot traffic is essentially non-human traffic to a website, and it is typically a result of software applications running automated tasks. Bot traffic is caused by search engine crawlers that catalog and index web pages, monitoring bots that keep an eye on your website health for issues like loading times, down times, and similar, and scrappers who “scrape” information from your website, such as email addresses, phone numbers and similar.

    • HTTPS > HTTP

    If a user follows a link on a secure (HTTPS) page to a non-secure (HTTP) page, no referrer data will be passed, meaning the session will appear as direct traffic and not as referral traffic. This could happen if one of your major referrers has migrated to HTTPS.

    • Missing tracking code

    When your landing page has a missing tracking GA code and a visitor lands on it, Google Analytics will process that session as direct traffic.

    • Redirects gone wrong

    If you don’t set up a redirect properly, you might end up increasing direct traffic. Javascript redirects and meta refresh redirects result in direct traffic.

    • Non-web documents

    Links in Microsoft Word documents, slide decks, or PDFs do not pass referrer information. Clicks from native mobile apps, especially those with embedded “in-app” browsers, will also appear as direct traffic in your Google Analytics reports.

    • “Dark social”

    “Dark social” refers to all methods of social sharing which cannot easily be attributed to a particular source, like through instant messaging, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

    • URL shorteners

    If you are using link shorteners, they might lose the referrer, therefore, no traffic source data available. To fix this issue, add UTM parameters to the final destination URL.

    9 Ways to Analyze Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

    “Marketing measurement is vital to understanding how your channels and content are working together to drive website visitors from prospect to customer. Of course, we know that customer journeys are getting longer and longer. A website visitor very rarely converts on their first session.

    Seeing direct traffic in your Google Analytics report can be a little frustrating as it doesn’t give you an indication of where that web visitor has come from.” Shares Laura Caveney from Ruler Analytics.

    So what are some tried and tested ways to analyze direct traffic in Google Analytics?

    1. Proper UTM tagging
    2. Use channel analysis
    3. Track bounce rate
    4. Add exclusion terms and analytic codes
    5. Start with the obvious
    6. Go a little deeper
    7. Analyze direct traffic based on its geolocation and metrics
    8. Study behavioral flow
    9. Look at dips and spikes

    1. Proper UTM tagging

    Tim Koster of CleverCreations says, “In our experience, the most effective way to analyze direct traffic is to work actively with Google Campaigns. A lot of direct traffic comes from non-defined sources like untagged banners, apps, mails and documents. Adding Google’s UTM codes to these links gives us more insight into where this direct traffic comes from.”

    Ruslan Konygin of Triodox believes the most effective way for analyzing your direct traffic is to make sure that you minimize ‘fake’ direct traffic in reports as much as possible.

    “Google Analytics counts as (direct)/(none) ANY traffic where the original source is not identified.

    For example, if links inside of emails don’t have UTM-tags(utm_source, utm_medium, utm_campaign) – most likely these sessions will be considered as (direct)/(none)(instead of ‘newsletter/email’, for example).

    Proper UTM-tagging of your links significantly increases your chances to properly attribute your sessions and count only ‘real’ direct visits as much as you can.” Explains Konygin.

    Candor’s Chris Hodge shares, “Consistently utilizing UTM codes is a must. Parsing out traffic sources from all marketing channels creates a cleaner direct traffic data set. When a business is not using UTM codes, traffic from email marketing often inflates the number of direct sessions. UTM codes make it easier to analyze data and make educated guesses as to which offline channels are contributing to direct traffic each month.”

    Related: Everything You Can Learn from Your Google Analytics Audience Overview Report

    2. Use channel analysis

    “In Google Analytics, there are two main ways to analyze traffic sources; Source/medium analysis and Channel analysis.” Explains SlyEcom’s Pir Fahad Momim. “I prefer using channel analysis as it provides insights into traffic acquisition, user engagement with the site, goal conversions, and e-commerce transactions.

    You can view your website’s direct traffic by going to Acquisition » All Traffic » Channels from your Google Analytics account.”

    Josh Pelletier of BarBend does the same thing, “My favorite way to analyze direct traffic is to use the Acquisition report and drill down into Source/Medium to understand the flow of our direct traffic. 

    From there, you can drill down into more details by device and by page to understand where the direct traffic is coming from and what pages are those users visiting.”

    Sepy Bazzazi of Lirned also analyzes direct traffic through channel analysis. 

    “To analyze your direct traffic in the simplest way, go to the Acquisition tab in Google Analytics and either click “Overview” – or – click “All Traffic” then “Channels” to see a breakdown of different traffic sources – one of which will be Direct. 

    Others may include “Organic Search”, “Paid Search”, “Referral” and more. In my opinion, direct Traffic mostly comes from people who typed your URL into their browser to visit your website and is usually an indication of a strong brand presence.

    Companies that have been around for longer tend to have stronger brand recognition and thus higher direct traffic rates. Newer companies tend to earn their traffic through marketing sources such as social media, email, or paid search – and their direct traffic ends up being much lower.” Explains Bazzazi.

    3. Track bounce rate

    Joel Salinas of Trusty Home Guide shares, “In my experience, the best way to analyze direct traffic is to look at the bounce rate of that traffic, as well as the time spent on the site. If 100% of the traffic has a 100% bounce rate and almost no time on my site, it’s a clear indication of spam rather than actual visits.”

    Luke Smith of We Buy Property In Kentucky agrees and adds, “We want to know how long the direct traffic is staying on our site or if we have a high bounce rate. We also look at the number of users there are compared to new users from the total amount of sessions. If it’s direct traffic, they remember our site and they came to us for another answer or perhaps to review our offerings.”

    “The most effective way for analyzing our direct traffic is by seeing the time spent on our pages. By doing so, we can figure out which pages people like spending their time on and which ones we need to fix.” Says Milkwhale’s Andre Oentoro.

    Related: 15 Ways for Using Google Analytics to Track Your SEO Efforts for Free

    4. Add exclusion terms and analytic codes

    “Effectively analyzing direct traffic often comes down to making sure you’re measuring what you think you are. If you’re looking at your direct traffic on GA and you see a high percentage, typically greater than 20%, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re using exclusion terms from your reporting and that your landing pages have analytic codes. Neglecting either tends to be a common mistake.

    When we did that, we were able to increase the accuracy of our reporting data tenfold. Our initial, erred direct traffic report came out at a whopping 29%, which later dropped to 11% with these changes.” Shares Clarify Capital.

    5. Start with the obvious

    “Analysing direct traffic is definitely a challenge and to an extent it’s an ongoing challenge because marketers aren’t fully in control of it.” Explain Aaron Dicks.

    “To begin auditing direct traffic, look into the top landing pages to see if there’s anything obvious in there, for example, local store pages if you’re a retail business, recent blog posts if you have an active content marketing plan, or even key sales pages if you’re in B2B.

    With all of these examples, and more, you’re likely able to determine how a key part of your marketing activity may be driving traffic but in an immeasurable way.”

    6. Go a little deeper

    Lora Bovie of Choosing Therapy shares her experience and says digging deeper in Google Analytics pays off big time.

    “Sometimes to do some deeper digging, I will go to Behavior –> Site Content –>Landing Pages. Then I’ll click on a few of the top listed landing pages, and click on the Primary Dimension: Source. 

    This will give me a better idea of what pages the direct traffic is going to.” Explains Bovie.

    7. Analyze direct traffic based on its geolocation and metrics

    “We analyze our direct traffic based on its geolocation and metrics, like bounce rate, pages per session, session duration, and conversions, amongst others. 

    It’s also very important to create filters in Analytics properties that exclude your organization’s or any affiliates’ IP addresses so that you are sure you are analyzing completely external direct traffic.” Explains Jack Landess of Truck Driver Institute.

    Shonavee Simpson-Anderson of Firewire Digital is of the same mind. 

    “The most effective way for analyzing your direct traffic is to first make sure that all staff related IPs are excluded from the data – as they are the most likely to be searching your brand or pages directly. 

    Once you know your data is clean, the most important metric to look at when analyzing direct traffic is conversions – is traffic converting? 

    With direct traffic, you won’t have other information to go on – they didn’t use a search query to find you, they already knew about you and they went directly to your site, so if they’re not converting you need to take a close look at the pages they’re landing on – which of these pages has the highest bounce rates? Are there pain points on these pages? Are there conversion points on these pages? You’ll need to look outside your metrics to analyze direct traffic and understand what might be going on.” Says Simpson-Anderson.

    When asked what is the best way to analyze direct traffic in Google Analytics, Howard Lee of LFDM Digital Marketing Advisors says, “It’s really dependent on what the primary goal is but I’ll be taking this from the perspective of only wanting to see the activity of non-company inbound traffic:

    First, get rid of the noise and remove your internal IP’s from tracking, if you’re going to look at inbound direct traffic, you only want to monitor your customers.

    Second, look at the landing pages of the direct traffic through Google Analytics and the customer journey from there. You’ll be able to identify people who are just logging in, versus how they’re interacting with your site if they plan on returning for a new purchase. You’d be surprised at the opportunity that direct traffic can give you.

    Finally, utilize some kind of tool like Hotjar or the newly free Microsoft Clarity to record user interaction. You can filter these recordings for direct visits but again, make sure you block your internal IPs.”

    8. Study behavioral flow

    “Comparing the Behavior Flow chart between Direct Traffic and All Website Traffic can often show valuable insights.” Explains Ben McLaughlan of Easy Mode Media.

    “You can find the Behavior Flow chart in Google Analytics. Go to Behavior > Behavior Flow. To find the direct traffic, select that as the source in a segment.

    Pay close attention to the main pages people visit. Are there any differences when compared to all site traffic? A specific URL on your website may be popular and saved in a browser or typed in directly if it is useful to a user.

    Identifying how direct traffic interacts with your website can show interesting segments of your audience and actionable insights.”

    9. Look at dips and spikes

    “Look at a visualization of all of your website traffic over time.” Says Branislav Kral of B King Digital. “Look for spikes and dips in Direct that follow the shape of spikes and dips in another traffic channel. You’ll see that Direct is a function of your biggest traffic source. You can further confirm that by looking at which landing pages people came to Direct from – everything other than the home page is telling. 

    Then, optimize for that main traffic source and see Direct as a positive indication that visitors are returning to your site. You may even see that oftentimes, they return to convert.”

    Editor’s note: Did you know that all Databox dashboards can be accessed through your smartphone too? With the Databox Android or iOS mobile app, you can view your dashboards from any mobile device, look at dips and spikes, and track your progress toward goals wherever you are.

    Jared Zabaldo of USAMM shares the same opinion and says, “When it comes to analyzing direct traffic, be sure to monitor any ad campaigns that you may have running, as well as when they begin and end. 

    Look at the spikes in your direct traffic. 

    If those dates match up, then you may have just discovered that your campaign strategies were successful.”

    Google Analytics Acquisition Dashboard Template by Databox

    “Use Google Analytics and Google Search Console as much as possible. 

    Nothing lies when it comes to data, so by reviewing this regularly, you’ll be able to see if the traffic is coming from reliable sources or not.” Aptly concludes Elijah Litscher of The Loop Marketing.

    Want more? To master your Google Analytics reporting game, check out our comprehensive guide on standard and custom reports, dimensions, metrics, and much more.

    Author's avatar
    Article by
    Maham S. Chappal

    Maham S. Chappal is a content writer for SaaS and marketing brands in B2B. She’s been published in several leading publications including Social Media Examiner. She loves writing in-depth, research-backed content that drives traffic, increases brand awareness, and boosts ROI. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her engrossed in the latest John Grisham novel. You can find her on LinkedIn or on mahamschappal.com

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