What Direct Traffic in Google Analytics Could Really Be

Google Analytics is one of the most popular tracking programs used online today and marketers frequently use it to analyse the success of their campaigns. Analytics can quickly and accurately tell you the source of every visitor to your website whether from an Organic Search, a Referral or a number of other source types. The one source type that is commonly misunderstood is Direct traffic.


Direct Traffic is commonly thought to be traffic that is generated from the following sources:

  • Visitors who type the website URL into their browser bar.
  • Visitors who have bookmarked the website.
  • Visitors who set the website as their home page.

Direct Traffic is often used to show the effect of building the website or brand, or the effect of offline advertising with many marketing managers referring to the traffic as ‘free’ traffic. This however is incorrect and ‘Direct’ traffic in Google Analytics simply means that Google was unable to determine the source of the traffic due to it having a blank referrer string.

Along with the sources mentioned above, the following sources of traffic could be contributing to your Direct Traffic numbers and should be either fixed or taken into account when calculating your ROI for each traffic source.

  • URL Shorterners – Shorterners such as bit.ly which are commonly used on Twitter and other social media can remove the referrer data and show the traffic as Direct or may show the URL shorterner itself as the traffic source.
  • Untagged Emails – If you have not correctly tagged your URL when sending out email marketing a large portion of this traffic will show as Direct due to no referrer being found because of desktop clients such as Outlook and secure browser based email providers such as Gmail. Find out how to create tracking links here.
  • PDF Documents – When links are clicked in PDF documents to a website these show as Direct.
  • Mobile Apps – Apps have the same issue as untagged emails in that clicks within an App to a website do not have a referrer so show as Direct.
  • Missing Analytics Codes – If you are sending traffic from a marketing campaign to a landing page or sub-domain that does not have Analytics, any additional click from your landing page to your website will show the source as Direct. Ensure every page on your website has a correctly implemented tracking code.
  • Incorrect Split Testing CodesSplit testing involves using redirects to send half of the visitors to a page to a different variation of that page to improve conversion rates. If incorrectly implemented the referrer can get lose in the redirect causing the traffic to show as Direct in Analytics.
  • Cross Device Browsing – An increasingly common issue is users looking up things on their mobile device and then using a desktop to go directly to the website to make the purchase or complete a form. In analytics this would show as Direct generating a large volume of conversions when in actual fact the source on the initial mobile device may have been SEO. Google is working on multi-device attribution tracking in Analytics but it will be a long time until this is accurate.

A lot of these issues that are likely distorting your traffic sources report can be easily fixed using correct tracking. Simply follow these instructions on how to track your marketing sources and ensure all of your emails and any other links you use have campaign tags attached. Tracking will never be 100% accurate but by being thorough you can ensure that they are as close to accurate as possible, meaning your data can be used to optimise your campaigns for years to come.

Duncan Jones

About The Author - Duncan Jones

I am a growth marketing specialist from New Zealand and im passionate about growing businesses through creative and performance focused digital marketing. I insist on tracking everything, follow proven growth processes and I still love the thrill of getting a first conversion then optimising & scaling the campaigns for clients across a huge range of industries. You can find me on LinkedIn here, find out how to hire me here or you can contact me here.

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