During my time as a digital marketer, one of the aspects of the discipline I enjoy the most is analysing data, mapping out patterns and sourcing insights for future improvements or changes in strategy. Google Analytics has helped make website data easy to understand and analyse when looking at channel performance one channel that often gets little or no thought to it, which is direct traffic.
I know very few marketers or webmasters who even bother to take a look at the direct traffic report unless there is some spike or drop in the numbers. Websites often feel they do not influence direct, and it's a brand metric so why bother looking at it?
The misconceptions of direct traffic
When it comes to direct traffic in Analytics, there are two deeply entrenched misconceptions. The first is that it’s caused almost exclusively by users typing an address into their browser (or clicking on a bookmark). The second is since you cannot directly influence it, it’s somehow immune to further analysis and improvement.
Dismissing direct without a second thought often leaves brands losing out on valuable data that could be used to improve their marketing efforts. To analyse direct traffic effectively, you first need to realise what it is, what it consists of and how to clean it out before you start to review the actual performance of the channel.
What is direct traffic?
Google Analytics will report a traffic source of "direct" when it has no data on how the session arrived at your website, or when the referring source has been configured to be ignored. You can think of direct as a catchment channel and GA’s fall-back option for when its processing logic has failed to attribute a session to a particular source.
What causes direct traffic?
If direct is a grouping of uncategorised channels, what are the situations in which a session be attributed to direct? Let's take a look and see, shall we?
1. Manual address entry and bookmarks
As we all understand it, the direct-traffic scenario is largely unavoidable one but a great indication of your usefulness to a user. If a user types a URL into their browser’s address bar or clicks on a browser bookmark, that session will appear as direct traffic. Simple as that, the more users doing that, the better your brand, application or information must be that users would prefer your site over others or even bothering with search engines.
2. HTTPS > HTTP
When a user follows a link on a secure (HTTPS) page to a non-secure (HTTP) page, no referrer data is passed, meaning the session appears as direct traffic instead of as a referral. Note that this is intended behaviour. It’s part of how the secure protocol was designed, and it does not affect other scenarios: HTTP to HTTP, HTTPS to HTTPS, and even HTTP to HTTPS all pass referrer data.
If your referral traffic has tanked, but direct has spiked, it could be that one of your major referrers has migrated to HTTPS. The inverse is also true: If you’ve migrated to HTTPS and are linking to HTTP websites, the traffic you’re driving to them will appear in their Analytics as direct.
How to fix this
If your referrers have moved to HTTPS and you’re stuck on HTTP, you really ought to consider migrating to HTTPS as it will bring back any referrer data which is removed from cross-protocol traffic.
This scenario will become more popular since Google has stated that HTTPS is now a ranking factor. If you're not yet running on HTTPS check out our guide on how to migrate to HTTPS here. Remember, HTTPS and HTTP/2 are the future of the web.
3. Missing or broken tracking code
If you're making use of subdomains or multiple domains this can easily corrupt your traffic especially if your domain is on the referral exclusion list (as per default configuration), the session is categorised as direct. To prevent it from happening again, carry out a thorough Analytics audit, move to a GTM-based tracking implementation, and promote a culture of data-driven marketing.
How to fix this
As a short-term fix, you can try to repair the damage by merely adding cross-domain tracking or set up your subdomain tracking correctly. Make sure your GTM and GA are appropriately configured to best practices or your sites specific needs. Also, ensure all external channels such as social media, email, affiliates, paid search display and remarketing are all tagged correctly with UTM tracking
4. Improper redirection
How to fix this
If you don't implement your redirects correctly, you could create complex redirect chains are more likely to result in a loss of referrer data, and you run the risk of UTM parameters getting stripped out. Try to update your URLs where possible and do not use the old path if you can help it. Also, make sure you map out and test your redirects and ensure you only use 301 server-side redirects.
To find out what adds to your direct traffic and how to clean it out, read the full post here