Google Analytics’ “Direct Traffic” Eats Leftover Traffic

Don’t get us wrong, we ♥ Google Analytics.  It is an instrumental tool for helping us understanding the ins and outs of our clients’ websites in a variety of industries.  Without it, we would basically be blind.

However, despite our love for GA, there are some shortcomings that sometimes test the waters in our relationship.  More specifically, the Channels report that is found under Acquisition. The report itself is supposed to show how people got to our clients’ websites.  Most of the definitions are clear: Search Traffic comes from visitors who find your website through a search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing, or, click a Paid Search (PPC) ad.  Referral Traffic comes from visitors who arrive at your site by clicking your link on another website.  Direct Traffic comes from visitors who have your website bookmarked or type your URL directly into the address bar… or does it?

Groupon recently performed a study and found that up to 60% of their traffic that was being reported as “Direct” was in fact “Organic Search” traffic.  The company took a radical step of deindexing their site for 6 hours in order to compare the traffic channels.  If GA was reporting accurately, there should have only been a drop off in Organic Traffic.  However, Direct Traffic dropped off nearly as much as the Organic Traffic, proving the long-known misreporting suspicion in our industry.

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So, what is Direct Traffic?

Two possible sources of Direct Traffic are normally explained as “those people who type in your domain name” or “those people who have bookmarked your website.” True, however, those behaviors aren’t always (and in most situations) the case in summing up Direct Traffic.

The true definition of a direct visit is any visit that lands on your website without a referrer.  Direct Traffic is a “catch-all” bucket of Google Analytics.  And therefore “Direct Traffic” is not always “Direct Traffic.”  Confused?  We were too.

In 2012, Apple released IOS6 and with that update, Safari began using Google secure search by default.  Google secure search uses the HTTPS (encrypted search) which didn’t allow referral data to be transmitted.  Because of this, a large percent of Google organic search traffic from IOS6 showed up as Direct Traffic.  When Apple fixed this in July 2013, the shift from Organic to Direct largely corrected itself in about a week. So what has been causing this influx of misreported Direct Traffic data in most recent months?

  1. Links sent through SMS, Whats App, MSN Messenger, AIM, Skype, Gchat or any other type of instant messaging platform do not provide a referrer and will show up as direct.  The exception to this is web-based chats which are not done through HTTPS or running through Java, Flash, or Silverlight.  Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 1.02.13 PM
  2. Clicks on untagged links within Outlook and other desktop email clients show up as Direct Traffic.  For the web-based email clients (Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) who use secure browsing (https://) the referrer is lost and the click is attributed to Direct Traffic.
  3. Opening a link in “Incognito Mode” or “In-Private Browsing” loses the referrer data and therefore looks like a Direct Traffic visit.  This could be why some tagged PPC campaigns URLS are showing up in the Direct Traffic report.Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 1.04.09 PM
  4. Type-in traffic might be accountable for “Long URLs” showing up as Direct Traffic landing pages.  These are usually your existing customers. If someone visits your site and clicks through to a long URL page that page will then be saved in their browser history.  The next time they go to type your URL in their browser the saved URL should populate.  If they click it, it accounts for Direct Traffic.Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 1.05.31 PM
  5. Fake robot traffic (bot attacks) may also contribute to Direct Traffic.  One of our eCommerce clients recently saw a huge increase in Direct Traffic between June 26 and October 30.  When we narrowed it down, mostly all of the Direct Traffic was coming from the OS IE7.  After further research, we found out that a remarketing scheme had caused this spike and many other companies who have used remarketing services saw duplicate traffic patterns in the Direct Traffic report.

The conclusion is simple.  If Direct Traffic is one of your business’s highest performing channels, your other channels (Paid, Organic and Email for example) are probably performing better than they appear and some traffic is being misreported in Direct Traffic.  Check out your landing pages in the Direct Traffic report to see if there are long URLs or what appear to be Paid Search URLs.  Also check out the Technology section under Audience to see if any specific Browser or Operating System is bringing in a large portion of Direct Traffic.



Melissa Sciorra

Melissa Sciorra, SEO Director. Follow her @mel_arroics!

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