Difference between Direct traffic and Referral traffic

Direct traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) that starts without a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser.

In Google Analytics, a session is a group of hits recorded for a user in a given time period. A hit is a user’s interaction (pageview, screen view, event, transaction, etc) with your website that results in data being sent to the Google Analytics server.

A user can generate one or more sessions.

Whenever a referrer is not passed or is dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics is not able to determine the traffic source and the traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google. In that case, GA sets the traffic source to ‘direct’ and medium to ‘none’.

For example, in the case of traffic coming from a Microsoft Word document, instant messenger app (like Skype) or a mobile app, the referrer is not passed and hence Google Analytics is not able to determine the source of the traffic. Because of that, all such traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google.

The direct marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the traffic sources are unknown to Google Analytics.

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Referral traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) that starts with a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser.  

Technically speaking, traffic from any website to your website is referral traffic (as long as a referrer is being passed by a user’s web browser). But in the context of Google Analytics, traffic from search engines and most PPC/CPM ads (like Google Ads), is not reported as referral traffic.

The impact of referral exclusion list on direct traffic

A referral exclusion list is the list of domains whose incoming traffic is treated as direct traffic (instead of referral traffic) by Google Analytics:

When you add a domain to the referral exclusion list, people who arrive at your website from the excluded domain do not trigger a new GA session and the traffic from the excluded domain is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

If you want traffic arriving from a specific website, to trigger a new GA session then do not include that website in the referral exclusion list.

The Referral Marketing Channel

The referral marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘referral’.

For example, the referral marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

  • facebook / referral
  • tripadvisor / referral
  • bing.com / referral

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Himanshu Sharma

Digital Marketing Consultant and Founder of Optimizesmart.com

Himanshu helps business owners and marketing professionals in generating more sales and ROI by fixing their website tracking issues, helping them understand their true customers' purchase journey and helping them determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

He has over 12 years of experience in digital analytics and digital marketing.

He was nominated for the Digital Analytics Association's Awards for Excellence. The Digital Analytics Association is a world-renowned not-for-profit association that helps organisations overcome the challenges of data acquisition and application.

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