Complete Guide to Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

What is direct traffic in Google Analytics?

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

This is the most accurate definition of direct traffic.

All other definitions of direct traffic (like: direct traffic is a traffic which comes from bookmarks or traffic from typed URLs etc) are lame, as they do not accurately describe, what direct traffic really is.

Direct traffic is ‘unknown’ traffic

Majority of people assume that the 100% of direct traffic is made up of the traffic which directly visit their website (by typing the URL in the browser address bar) or which comes from bookmarks.

But this is not often the case.

Whenever Google Analytics is not able to determine the origin of the traffic source, it reports that traffic as direct traffic.

Whenever a referrer is not passed or is dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics is not able to determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

Google should seriously consider renaming ‘direct traffic’ as ‘unknown’ traffic to avoid any confusion regarding the origin of the traffic source.

Examples of Direct Traffic

In following cases, a referrer is not passed and hence the traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics:

#1 ‘Type in’ traffic

Sometimes people try to visit your website by typing your brand name followed by .com in the address bar under the assumption that this will be your website address.

If they succeed in visiting your website, all such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#2 Traffic from Bookmarks

Let us suppose a user landed on your web page via Google organic search and then bookmarked the page.

After 6 months, the user returned to your web page via the bookmark. 

His visit could now be reported as direct visit by GA (as by default the campaign cookie expire after 6 months).

NoteIf the user landed on your web page via Google organic search, bookmarked the page and then later returned to the page, within 6 months via bookmark, then his visit could have been reported as visit from organic search and not direct. This is because by default campaign cookie expires after 6 months.

#3 Traffic from Apps

Majority of mobile, desktop and social media applications do not send a referrer.

So traffic from such apps is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#4 Traffic from non web documents

Non web documents (Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF etc) do not send a referrer.

So traffic from such documents is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#5 Traffic from desktop email clients

Visits that came from a link within a desktop email clients (like Microsoft Outlook) are all reported as direct visits by Google Analytics.

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#6 Traffic from Instant Messenger (IM) and/or online chat rooms

IM visits that came from a link within an instant messenger (like Skype, Google Hangout) and/or online chat rooms are all reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#7 Traffic from incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns

Incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns can cause the referrer data to drop.

Google analytics ignore the referrer when it sees a campaign tracking code.

For example, if you share a tagged link on twitter with ‘utm_source=facebook’, then all the twitter visits will be treated as ‘facebook visits’ by Google Analytics.

But if you went one step further and used something like ‘utmSource=facebook’ (which is not the correct campaign tracking variable) while tagging the URL then Google Analytics will completely ignore the referrer and report traffic from twitter as direct traffic.

#8 Traffic from web browsers which do not send referrer data

Sending of the referrer data depends entirely on the web browser and/or the redirect method being used.

If a user’s web browser does not pass the referrer data then there is no way to get it.

Whenever a referrer is not passed or is dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics is not able to determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

Sometimes a user’s browser privacy settings and/or add-ons used (like Firefox No Referrer Add on, ScriptSafe for Chrome) can cause the referrer header to drop and not passed.

Private browsing, incognito mode, in private browsing and other similar settings do not let the browser to pass the referrer data.

Here one thing worth noting is that, Privacy settings and add-ons can not stop search engines like Google to send referrer data because they do not send original referrer header in the first place.

That is why they are also able to bypass the HTTP secure connection protocol and can pass referrer from HTTPS to HTTP website.

You can also use the same tactic to pass referrer data.

#9 Traffic from redirected URLs which do not send referrer data

Sending of the referrer data depends a lot on the redirect method being used.

For example, Internet Explorer 8 loses referrer data when following methods are used a redirect methods:

Javascript:location.href and Meta refresh – 0.

Similarly, Internet Explorer loose referrer data when you click on a link that uses ‘windows.open’ JavaScript method or when you click on a link embedded in a flash application.

If you use following redirect methods then there is no guarantee that all web browsers will send the referrer data:

  • Javascript:location.href
  • Javascript:location.replace
  • windows.open
  • meta refresh.

Use server side redirects (301 and 302) instead of Meta and JavaScript redirects, to redirect visitors and search engines, as they allow all major web browsers to pass the referrer data.

Give preference to 301 over 302 wherever you can, as 301 redirects have better cross browser compatibility when it comes to passing the referrer data.

302 redirect often cause the referrer to be dropped.

During HTTPs to HTTP redirect and vice versa, referrer is not passed by default.

All such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#10 Traffic from IOS ‘open in…’

When you use an option like ‘open in safari’ or ‘open in chrome’ in IOS, the referrer data is not passed.

All such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#11 Traffic from a link which uses the ‘rel=noreferrer’ attribute

Referrer is not passed in case of visits that came from a link which uses the ‘rel=noreferrer’ attribute.

For example:

<a href=”https://www.example.com/about/” rel=”noreferrer”>No referrer for you</a>

#12 Traffic from company’s firewall which do not send referrer data

Sometimes your company’s firewall settings can cause the referrer to drop.

All such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

Note: Sometimes errors in your script can cause the Google Analytics cookies to be reset, thus resulting in a direct visit.

#13 Fake Direct Traffic from Spam Bots

In the context of Google Analytics, fake traffic is defined as one or more fake hits sent to your GA property.

A ‘hit’ is that user interaction with your website that result in data being sent to your Google Analytics property.

A hit can be a ‘pageview’, ‘screenview’, ‘event’, ‘transaction’ etc.

A fake hit is the one which is generated by a spam bot instead of as a result of a living breathing human being who interacted with your website.

At present it is possible to fake any GA hit.

What that means, spammer can send fake direct traffic, fake referral traffic, fake organic traffic, fake traffic from social media etc.

Spammer can fake events, virtual pageviews, screenviews, hostname, request URI, keywords and even transaction and item data:

event-spam

landing-page-spam

referrer-spam2

fake-organic-traffic

keywords-spam

trump-spam-google-analytics

This is a big data security risk which many people are not aware of.

Even using the premium version of Google Analytics does not protect your GA account from being hacked/spammed.

In the context of Google Analytics, there are two types of spam bots:

  1. Spam bots which visit websites
  2. Spam bots which do not visit websites

Spam bots which crawl your website can visit your website without sending referrer data.

All such traffic will be reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

Spam bots which do not visit your website can send fake hits to your GA property by abusing measurement protocol.

If you see a sudden and massive spike in direct traffic with a bounce rate close to 100% and an avg. session duration close to 0 second, then most probably your website has been attacked by a spam bot.

To learn more about, how to reduce or even completely remove spam/fake traffic in Google Analytics, read this article: Guide to removing referrer spam and fake traffic in Google Analytics

How Google Analytics reports on direct traffic

Google Analytics can report direct traffic in two ways:

#1 As a traffic source

#2 As a marketing channel.

Direct traffic as a traffic source

In the context of GA, ‘source’ (or ‘traffic source’) is the origin of your website traffic.

For example,

In case of ‘(direct) / (none)‘, ‘direct’ is the traffic source.

In the context of GA, ‘medium’ (or ‘traffic medium’) is the category of the traffic source as defined by Google.

For example,

In case of ‘(direct) / (none)‘, ‘none’ is the traffic medium.

In order to see Direct traffic reported as traffic source, navigate to ‘Sources/Medium’ report in GA:

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’.

Direct traffic as a marketing channel

In the context of Google Analytics, a channel or a marketing channel is a group of several traffic sources with same medium.

For example, ‘Direct’ is a marketing channel which can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as medium of the traffic sources is ‘none’.

In other words, Direct marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the traffic sources are unknown to Google Analytics.

For example, in case of traffic coming from: microsoft word document, instant messenger (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.

In order to see Direct traffic reported as a marketing channel, navigate to ‘Channels’ report in GA:

How direct traffic works

In order to understand how direct traffic works, you first need to understand the concept of ‘referrer’. 

In order to understand ‘referrer’ you first need to understand HTTP.

So let us first start with HTTP and then we will gradually move to ‘referrer’.

Introduction to HTTP and referrer

HTTP or Hypertext Transfer Protocol is a set of rules used by web browsers and web servers to communicate with each other.

A web browser communicates with a web server by sending HTTP requests for each requested resource (html document, image file, css file, JavaScript file etc).

A web server communicates back by sending HTTP responses for each HTTP request.

Each HTTP request is made up of request line and request headers (also called HTTP request headers).

Similarly, each HTTP response is made up of status line and response headers (also called HTTP response headers).

Here is what a HTTP request looks like:

HTTP Request Headers

This request was made to my web server (where my website is hosted) by a user’s browser when he clicked on a link to one of my blog post (You are doing Google Analytics all wrong. Here is why) from my Google+ page.

As so you can see from the screenshot above, referrer is just one of the HTTP request header and it is ‘Google Plus’ in this case:

https://plus.url.google.com/url?sa=z&n=1400603604168&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.optimizesmart.com%2Fgoogle-analytics-wrong-why&usg=ZSnkIqTswUCpggL84jvJcY3KXfk

Now since the request was made to my web server, my server has to communicate back (it has to obey HTTP protocols) to the user’s browser.

It does so by sending HTTP response.

Here is what a HTTP response looks like:

HTTP Response Headers

This response was sent by my web server to the user’s browser.

How to see the HTTP request and response headers

If you want to see these HTTP request and response headers, you just can’t see them by viewing the source code of a web page.

You won’t find them there.

I use a tool called ‘Chrome Developer Tools’ to see HTTP requests and responses for a particular web page.

This tool is already built into Google Chrome browser.

Follow the steps below:

Step-1: Right click on a web page and then select ‘Inspect’:

This will open developers tool window at the bottom of your browser.

Step-2: Click on the ‘Network’ tab:

Step-3: Press F5 to reload your web page.

Step-4: Find and click on the URL of your webpage:

Step-5: Click on the ‘headers’ tab:

On the right hand side of the developers window, you can see all the HTTP response and request headers.

Scroll down and search for ‘Referrer‘ in the HTTP request header:

This is the window from which you can find out whether a referrer was passed or not.

Note: Cookie is one of the HTTP request header (see the screenshot above). So cookie data is sent via HTTP request to a web server.

If your website is on https:// and you are linking out or redirecting to another https:// website, your browser will send referrer data.

Similarly, if your website is on http:// and you are linking out or redirecting to a https:// website, your browser will send referrer data.

HTTPs and referrer

HTTPS or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure is simply a secure version of the HTTP.

If your website is on https:// and you are linking out or redirecting to a http:// website, your browser will not send referrer data because of security reasons.

What that means, all of the HTTP websites you are sending the traffic to, will see traffic from your HTTPS website as direct traffic.

However, if your website is on https:// and you are linking out or redirecting to another https:// website, your browser will send referrer data because both websites are using secure connection.

Following is the visual summary of when a referrer data is passed and not passed in case of HTTPS and HTTP connections:

when referrer data is passedSo if one day, all search engines, browsers and social networks move to HTTPS (and they will) while your website won’t then you will lose majority of your referrer data for good as HTTPS websites by default, do not pass referrer data to HTTP websites.

I used the word ‘default’ because it is possible to send referrer data from a HTTPS website to an HTTP website.

How to send referrer data from a HTTPS website to an HTTP website

As mentioned earlier, you can send referrer data from a HTTPS website to an HTTP website.

For example, Google+, Facebook and twitter are already sending referrer data to HTTP websites and they all use https://

How they are able to do that?

They all use an internal redirect script that first redirects a visitor to a HTTP page (which creates its own referrer data) before sending the visitor to the actual URL on a HTTP website.

For example,

If you click on this link:

http://www.abc.com/excel-seo-powerful-cheat-sheet-boost-productivity/

from a Google+ page:

https://plus.google.com/109426632283601974817/posts

you will first be temporarily redirected to the following URL:

http://plus.url.google.com/url?sa=z&n=1400603253616&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.abc.com%2Fexcel-seo-powerful-cheat-sheet-boost-productivity%2F&usg=Yr4dTmDnq34M5t5_Y93W7CqqLJk

Then you will be redirected to:

http://www.abc.com/excel-seo-powerful-cheat-sheet-boost-productivity/

All of this will happen so fast, that you can’t easily identify that you were first redirected to an intermediate HTTP page.

Here Google+ is not sending the original referral data from a HTTPs website to a HTTP website thus honouring the Secure Protocol which states that:

If a website is accessed from a HTTP Secure (HTTPS) connection and a link points to anywhere except another secure location, then the referer field is not sent.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_referer

So what Google+ is doing here is, creating its own referrer data by using an intermediate page (http://plus.url.google.com/url?) something like this:

<a href=”http://plus.url.google.com/url?sa=z&n=1400603604168&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.abc.com%2Fexcel-seo-powerful-cheat-sheet-boost-productivity&usg=ZSnkIqTswUCpggL84jvJcY3KXfk”>https://www.abc.com/excel-seo-powerful-cheat-sheet-boost-productivity/</a>

Facebook and twitter follow the same tactic.

They create and send their own referrer data instead of the original referrer data.

Facebook uses facebook.com/l.php as an intermediate page, whereas twitter uses t.co/ as an intermediate page.

Now since these social networks do not send the original referrer data, they can rewrite the referrer data whatever way they want and can hide any information they like.

Another advantage of using this tactic is that these social networks can easily hide personally identifiable information and can thus protect users’ privacy.

Google Search Engine also use the same tactic as it redirects you through another URL.

That is why even when being on a secure connection, Google is able to send referrer data to HTTP websites.

Since Google doesn’t send you the original referrer data, it can also rewrite the referrer data whatever way it wants and can hide any information it likes.

So Google choose to hide the ‘keyword’ data from its referrer via ‘not provided’ keywords.

You can use the same tactic to send referrer data from your HTTPS website to any HTTP website.

What referrer data are search engines sending to a HTTP website?

If you want to know what referrer data search engines (like Google, Bing and Yahoo) are sending to a HTTP website, then follow the steps below:

Step-1: Install the Get Referrer URL chrome extension. When you install the extension, it appears as a letter ‘R’ on top right hand side of your browser:

Step-2: Search for a keyword phrase for which your HTTP website rank on the first page of Google and then click on your website listing in the search results.

Step-3: Click on the ‘R’ button to see the referrer URL:

Use the ‘Get Referrer URL chrome extension’ when you navigate from one web page of your website to another.

If you do not see the referrer URL then it means the traffic to another page is treated as direct traffic by Google Analytics:

The difference between direct traffic and referral traffic

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

Referral traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) which 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 Adwords), 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 to 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.

Pro Tip >> Move your entire website to secure connection (HTTPS) ASAP

Direct traffic is increasing day by day and if you don’t do anything about it now, then one day all you will see in your analytics reports will be direct traffic: little to no referral data, just direct traffic and your favourite ‘not provided’ keywords.

I am not kidding.

Every major website/browser/search engine is moving to secure connection (https://) while your website is still using http.

So what will happen is not so distant future is that you will stop getting referral data.

This is because by default HTTPS websites do not send referrer data to HTTP websites.

You need to capture as much referral data as possible, if you wish to continue to do meaningful analysis in the distant future.

You should move your website to secure connection ASAP even if your website is not e-commerce and you are not collecting any sensitive data.

In this way you will be able to track referrals from HTTPS websites which you won’t be able to otherwise.

How to move a website to secure connection (HTTPS)

In order to move your website to a secure connection, you would need to get the SSL Certificate for your domain.

You can get this certificate for free or you can purchase it.

Cloudflare provides free shared SSL certificate for wordpress websites.

So you really have no excuse, not to move your website to secure connection.

If for some reason, you can not the get the free SSL certificate from Cloudflare, you can purchase it from companies like ‘Comodo‘ or ‘Digicert‘.

Just make sure that the certificate you purchase support mobile, your CDN supports SSL, your SSL supports SPDY and all of your images, CSS files, JavaScript files etc use HTTPS too.

When you get the SSL certificate, you should migrate your website from HTTP to HTTPS by using 301 redirects.

That way you don’t loose organic search traffic.

Hire a professional SEO for the migration work unless you know exactly what you are doing.

Otherwise you may end up loosing lot of organic search traffic.

Once your website is moved to secure connection, Google Chrome will display the ‘secure’ message next to your website address like the one below:

This message is the proof that your website is on secure connection.

For more details about getting the SSL certificate, contact your web host.

Pro Tip >> Once you have moved your website to HTTPS, make special efforts to send the referrer data to HTTP websites

If you run an affiliate website and your website is on https, you would not want your advertisers (those who are still using HTTP websites) to believe that your website does not send any traffic (as without referrer, traffic will be reported as direct traffic by GA).

Hence once you have moved to secure connection, it is very important that you make special efforts to send referrer data to HTTP websites.

This is the same reason, why websites like Facebook, Google and Twitter make special efforts to send the referrer data to HTTP websites.

If they don’t then their advertisers who are still using HTTP websites will not see any traffic coming from these advertising platforms (as without referrer, incoming traffic will be reported as direct traffic by GA) and may believe that they are losing popularity and hence are not good advertising platform.

 

16 Methods to minimize direct traffic

#1. Tag the URLs of all marketing campaigns

One of the most popular and widely used method to clean up direct traffic is to tag each and every URL of your marketing campaigns with campaign tracking parameters:

  • utm_source
  • utm_medium
  • utm_term
  • utm_content and
  • utm_campaign.

Following is an example of tagged URL:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/google-analytics-cookies-ultimate-guide/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=article-promotion

Same URL when untagged will look like the one below

https://www.optimizesmart.com/google-analytics-cookies-ultimate-guide/

Make sure that you always tag the URLs you share, via email or social media.

#2. Tag each marketing campaign correctly

As mentioned earlie,r if you share a tagged link on twitter with ‘utm_source=facebook’, then all the twitter visits will be reported as ‘Facebook visits’ by Google Analytics.

Similarly, if you used incorrect campaign parameters (like UTMSource=facebook) then Google analytics will completely ignore the referrer and treat referral visits as direct visits.

Use Google URL builders to tag campaign URLs correctly.

#3 Make sure all the pages of your website contain valid Google Analytics Tracking Code which fire on page load

Make sure all the web pages on your website has got valid Google Analytics tracking code which fire on page load.

Otherwise traffic from your own web pages can be reported as either direct traffic or self-referral traffic by Google Analytics.

For example, consider the following scenario.

A user land on your website via a web page (say web page A) which does not contain GA tracking code

Then he navigates to the web page (say web page B) which contains valid GA tracking code.

Now if your domain name is in the referral exclusion list than the traffic from Web Page A to Web Page B will be reported as direct traffic by GA.

If your domain name is not in the referral exclusion list than the traffic from Web Page A to Web Page B will be reported as self-referral traffic by GA.

You should do a site wide tag audit to identify all web pages with missing GA tracking code.

#4. Embed shortened tagged URLs in non-HTM documents

If the URL you embed in a non-html documents (word, excel, powerpoint, PDF etc) or in an email, contains clearly visible campaign tracking parameters then it reduces its chances of being clicked or shared by your target audience.

People do not like their activities (like clicking on a link) being tracked.

So when they see a URL with campaign tracking parameters they could immediately feel like being tracked.

So some people either don’t share such URLs or remove the campaign tracking parameters before they share.

Not to mention, the campaign tracking parameters make a URL looks ugly.

If you are deploying contents via non-html documents (word, excel, powerpoint, PDF etc) and/or desktop email clients then the best way to embed tagged URLs is through a URL shortening service like bit.ly.

For example, consider the following URL with campaign tracking parameter:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/google-analytics-cookies-ultimate-guide/?utm_source=microsoft-word&utm_medium=non-html-document&utm_campaign=article-promotion

Now if you want to share this URL via a non-HTML document then first shorten it via a service like Bit.ly and then embed it:

https://bit.ly/1ibcdZl

I use the custom medium ‘non-html document’ when tagging the URLs embedded in non-html document:

From the screenshot above, i can easily understand that someone clicked on a link embedded in microsoft-word document.

This is the advantage of tagging URLs in non-HTM documents.

#5. Keep browser referral issues, privacy settings and add-ons in mind

Keep different browser referral issues, privacy settings and add-ons in mind while redirecting visitors and search engines and always use server side redirects (301 and 302) instead of Meta and JavaScript redirects.

Avoid redirect chains, as a referrer may drop during several redirects.

#6. Migrate to HTTPs

Move your website to HTTPS as explained earlier.

#7. Do not use rel=”noreferrer” on your website links

Make sure there is no rel=”noreferrer” on your website links especially if you are an affiliate.

#8. Avoid Google Analytics cookies to be reset

Make sure that your code does not cause Google Analytics cookies to be reset, thus resulting in a direct visit.

This is one of the most overlooked issue and often hard to diagnose.

#9.  Check your company’s firewall settings

Check your company’s firewall settings to make sure that the referrer is not dropped.

#10. Block Internal Traffic

Block your own company’s traffic (also called internal traffic) from being tracked by Google Analytics by installing Google Analytics Opt-out Add-on.

Blocking traffic by IP address does not always work well (unless you are on a static IP) as IP addresses changes all the time.

Often internal traffic end up being reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

For example, if your developers are heavily involved in testing then they are going to visit your website all day, everyday.

All such traffic is likely to be reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

#11. Segment your direct traffic into two categories.

The first category includes desktop and tablet direct visits.

The second category includes mobile direct visits.

You can create these categories by using custom segments in Google Analytics.

This will give you a good idea of what your direct traffic is made up of and how you can minimize it.

#12. Look for correlation between your direct visits and marketing campaigns.

Often when we launch a new marketing campaign (esp. offline) there is a considerable increase in direct traffic to the website.

You need to note down all such changes in direct traffic through Google Analytics Annotations.

So that later you can attribute traffic and conversions through direct traffic in a particular time period to your marketing campaigns.

#13. Use phone call tracking solution

If your website has been set up mainly to generate leads through phone calls (quite common in case of websites which sell high priced items like properties, cars, yacht, consultation services etc.) then you will miss out on all the referral data, if you do not implement a phone call tracking solution.

#14. Do not just rely on Google Analytics to capture referral data

Do not just rely on Google Analytics to capture referral data esp. if you are tracking mobile apps.

There are lot of third party tools (like Tune) out there which can track referral data much more accurately than Google Analytics.

#15. Use TV Attribution Model

If you are a business which advertises its products or services on TV and you want to measure the impact of TV advertising on website traffic and sales then you should seriously consider using a TV attribution model.

TV attribution model is an algorithmic attribution model which uses machine learning and statistical modelling for assigning conversion credit to various marketing touch points.

TV ads drive website traffic and sales.

If you monitor your GA real time reports during and after a TV ad, you are likely to see a huge uplift in direct traffic.

But there is no easy way to prove that the uplift is because of the TV ad and not because of some other marketing activity.

If you are running several TV ads on various ad networks then it becomes even more difficult to understand the impact of particular ad network, TV program and ad slot on website traffic and sales.

Here TV attribution model tool comes handy.

Through TV attribution model tool you can correlate TV ad airing with your website traffic, sales and other online users’ activities in real time.

This attribution model is not something which you can create in standard Google Analytics.

It is beyond its capabilities.

You would need to use a tool which provides TV attribution solutions.

Once such tool is Attribution 360: https://attribution.google.com/

Google Attribution 360 provides a TV attribution model tool with the aim to provide a detailed insight into the relationship between TV ad airings and customer online activities.

#16. Device new ways to capture referral data

Be innovative and device new ways to capture referral data.

For example, you can capture referral data through lead generation forum, on-page surveys, email surveys, contests etc.

Simply ask your website visitors via form, how they found your website/service.

Direct traffic is actually a demand

Contrary to popular belief, ‘Direct’ traffic is not really a marketing channel.

It is a ‘demand’ which is created as a result of investment in marketing campaigns.

People will not automatically find your website and visit it directly.

They find and visit your website in response to some online and/or offline marketing activity.

This marketing activity can also include ‘word of mouth’ publicity.

So if majority of your sales and conversions are being attributed to direct traffic, you may get the impression that it is just your brand power which is driving sales and not the marketing campaigns.

However this is not the case.

If you are still in doubt then pause all of your marketing campaigns for a week or two and monitor how it impacts the direct traffic to your website.

Your direct traffic is likely to go down.

Customers generally do not convert on their very first visit to a website.

A return visit is most likely to happen before a conversion or transaction takes place on the website.

One of the most common and easiest ways to return to a website is to type part of the website URL in the browser address bar.

The web browser then autofills the remaining part of the URL and the user ends up directly visiting your website.

Because of this user behavior, direct traffic can end up being attributed a lot of traffic, sales and other conversions by web analytics tools.

For example, look at the report below:
ga wrong
The majority of marketers looking at this standard ‘All Traffic’ report in Google Analytics for the last three months will draw the following conclusions:

# Organic traffic is playing a secondary role to direct traffic.

# The majority of traffic and revenue is coming through direct traffic.

# We need to speed up content development and link building to increase organic traffic to the website.

But now you know that all unknown traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

So on the surface it looks like 618,199 visits/sessions were direct, but it may actually be only 25,000 sessions which were from direct traffic and the rest were from display ads, email, organic,  social media and applications/campaigns in which the referrers were not passed.

Related Article: You are doing Google Analytics all wrong. Here is why

But this analysis does not end here, because you are still not looking at the complete picture.

Here is the complete picture:

scenario-1.1

Visitors do not always access your website directly and then make a purchase straight away.

They are generally exposed to multiple acquisition/marketing channels (like display ads, social media, paid search, organic search, referral websites, email etc) before they access your website directly and make a purchase.

So if you are unaware of the role played by prior marketing channels, you will credit conversions and e-commerce transactions to the wrong marketing channels, like in the present case to direct traffic.

If you look at the chart above, organic search is playing a key role in driving direct traffic to the website which eventually resulted in conversions and ecommerce transactions.

To get this type of understanding you need to understand and implement attribution modelling.

So the conclusion that organic traffic is playing a secondary role to direct traffic is incorrect.

Do you see sudden and massive spikes in direct traffic?

If you see a sudden and massive spike in direct traffic with a bounce rate close to 100% and an avg. session duration close to 0 second, then most probably your website has been attacked by a spam bot.

If that is not the case, then monitor your online and esp. offline marketing activities.

May be someone in your company is running ads on TV or Radio which is causing sudden and massive spikes in direct traffic?

May be your brand is being mentioned on a popular website or by an influencer with massive social media following?

May be someone is running a marketing campaign with incorrect campaign tracking parameters which is resulting in massive amount of direct traffic?

Find out all possible reasons of spike in direct traffic.

If you exclude the case of fake direct traffic from spam bots, direct traffic does not happen on its own.

It is a ‘demand’ which is created as a result of investment in marketing campaigns.

People will not automatically find your website and visit it directly.

They find and visit your website in response to some online and/or offline marketing activity.

How Google Analytics attributes conversions to direct traffic

Google Analytics attributes conversions to direct traffic in TWO ways

1. In case of non-multi channel funnel reports in Google Analytics, the conversion is attributed to the previous non-direct campaign/traffic source (if there is one).

For example:

If a person clicked on an organic search listing to visit your website and then later returned to your website directly and made a purchase then Google will attribute conversion to the organic search and not to the direct traffic.

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2. In case of multi channel funnel reports in Google Analytics, the conversion is attributed to the direct traffic (provided direct traffic is the last interaction) even if previous campaign/source is non-direct.

For example:

If a person clicked on an organic search listing to visit your website and then later returned to your website directly and made a purchase then Google will attribute conversion to the direct traffic and not to the organic search.

So Google attributes conversions to direct traffic in 2 ways and not just in one way depending upon which type of report you are looking into (multi channel funnel report or non multi channel funnel report).

Note: When you are analysing the impact of direct traffic on your business bottom-line, it is wise to look and draw conclusions from the non-multi channel funnel reports rather than the multi channel funnel reports, as non-multi channel funnel reports present true customer buying behavior in case of direct traffic.

How to measure the impact of organic search on direct traffic

Direct traffic is a SEO killer.

Google Analytics can attribute lot of sales initiated by organic search traffic to direct traffic.

By how do you know, whether this is the case in your situation?

You can measure the impact of organic search traffic on direct traffic by using Google Analytics Conversion Segments.

Step-1: Navigate to ‘Top Conversions Path’ Report (under Conversions > ‘Multi Channel Funnel’ Report) in Google Analytics.

Step-2: Click on ‘Conversion Segments’ button and then click on the link ‘Create New Conversion Segment’ as shown below:

 

Step-3: Name the new conversion segment as ‘Effect of Organic search on Direct Traffic’ and then define the segment as shown in the screenshot below:

effect of organic search on direct traffic

This conversion segment will tell you how organic traffic is helping direct traffic’s conversions.

So this segment is very important.

Step-4: Once you have defined the segment then click on the ‘Save Segment’ button. This action will not only create a new conversion segment but also apply the conversion segment to the ‘top conversions path’ report:

effect of organic search on direct traffic 2

 

effect of organic search on direct traffic 3

Note how Direct traffic is stealing your SEO efforts.

You need to show this report to your client/boss.

How to measure the impact of PPC on direct traffic

Direct traffic is also a PPC killer.

Google Analytics can attribute lot of sales initiated by paid search traffic to direct traffic.

By how do you know, whether this is the case in your situation?

You can measure the impact of paid search traffic on direct traffic by creating and applying following conversion segment, named ‘Effect of PPC on Direct Traffic’:

effect-of-ppc

Through this segment you can determine how PPC is impacting the conversions through direct traffic.

PPC guys will love this conversion segment.

Learn about the Google Analytics Usage Trends Tool

The Google Analytics usage trend is a new tool which is used to visualise trends in your Google Analytics data and to perform trend analysis.


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Himanshu Sharma

Certified web analyst and founder of OptimizeSmart.com

My name is Himanshu Sharma and I help businesses find and fix their Google Analytics and conversion issues. If you have any questions or comments please contact me.

  • Over eleven years' experience in SEO, PPC and web analytics
  • Google Analytics certified
  • Google AdWords certified
  • Nominated for Digital Analytics Association Award for Excellence
  • Bachelors degree in Internet Science
  • Founder of OptimizeSmart.com and EventEducation.com

I am also the author of three books:

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