Direct traffic can be frustrating, annoying and it’s been the subject of numerous experiments and theories about where this traffic is actually coming from.
Let’s take a better look at direct traffic so we can figure out what it’s supposed to mean, what it might actually mean and how we should be understanding it and speaking about it to clients.
What is direct traffic?
Direct traffic refers to visits where the user has come directly to your website, through no other traceable method of discovery (such as search engines, social media, email).
In practice, direct traffic is when:
- Someone has typed the URL directly into the browser
- Someone has used a link from within a PDF or MS Word document
- Someone has used a bookmark to access your site
- Someone has come to your website from any source but the information hasn’t been transferred over
The good news is that there are steps you can take to try to get a better idea of where traffic is coming from in the first two situations. The third is difficult to get a grip on but is relatively rare and, if anything, is a good sign that visitors are saving your content to come back to.
A little extra work with the links you use in your online communication (email, social media etc.) can also help firm up your source information if it isn’t being transferred over correctly.
Why is source information not being transferred?
There are a variety of reasons by source information might not be correctly transferred through to Google Analytics.
In September 2012, iOS 6 (Apple’s 6th major update to its mobile operating system affecting iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) was released and quickly the SEO community noticed that their organic traffic had suddenly dropped and direct traffic suddenly increased. It turns out that iOS 6 was stripping out referrer data from Google searches. It wasn’t until July 2013, when Apple fixed the issue, that we saw our organic traffic return, though it’s not clear whether we actually got all of it back.
The transfer from a HTTPS site to an HTTP site also strips out referral data. The HTTP technical specification calls on a browser not to pass on referrer information when moving from an HTTPS site to an HTTP website. It’s also possible to manually set security settings that stop any referral information being transferred from one website to another. For an example of this in action see this blog from Megalytic.
If you haven’t seen Groupon’s direct traffic experiment, then stop everything you’re doing and look! They de-indexed their website for a few hours, stopping all organic traffic from Google, and found that their direct traffic started dropping in a similar pattern. They found that, as a website that gets about half of their traffic from mobile, up to 60% of traffic to URLs with at least one sub-folder reported as Direct was Organic traffic from Google. Again, this is probably a mixture of https to http issues, browsers not passing on information correctly or users’ security settings.
How can I identify the source of direct traffic?
On the plus side, you can take steps to get more source information through to Google Analytics. You can help trace the online sources of traffic and even people typing in your URLs directly into their browser and following links in offline documents like MS Word or PowerPoint by manually adding tracking to your links via UTM codes.
A UTM code is a parameter that you can add to the end of any link to tell Google Analytics the following:
- Campaign name
- Campaign term
- Campaign content
The first source is required and the latter can be added to help differentiate adverts or sources of traffic if necessary.
All you need it Google’s helpful Campaign URL builder. All you need to do is create links with source information that reflects where you’ve used them. By tagging all the links you share on Twitter with ‘Social’ and ‘Twitter’ will make sure that, even if the browser wipes the referral information, the link will still contain the original location of the link and pass it through to Google Analytics.
The only word of warning is making sure you are consistent in your use, otherwise you may have trouble bringing it all together to report on later.
You can also use UTM tagged links in offline documents like PDFs and presentations to track their use. Redirecting short links for offline advertising campaigns to links with the relevant UTM code can also help to track the effect of your print or radio advertising.
See this article for more on how to use UTM parameters to track marketing campaigns.