How to reduce Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?

Last Updated: May 20, 2022

Use the following methods to reduce direct traffic in Google Analytics:

  1. Tag the URLs of all marketing campaigns.
  2. Tag each marketing campaign correctly.
  3. Make sure all the pages of your website contain valid Google Analytics tracking code which fires on page load.
  4. Keep browser referral issues, privacy settings and add-ons in mind.
  5. Migrate your website to HTTPS.
  6. Block the internal traffic.
  7. Segment your direct traffic into two categories.
  8. Look for correlations between your direct visits and marketing campaigns.
  9. Use phone call tracking solutions.
  10. Avoid using headless solutions
  11. Use a TV attribution model.
  12. Devise new ways to capture referrer data.
  13. Embed shortened tagged URLs in non-HTM documents.
  14. Do not use rel=”noreferrer” on your website links.
  15. Avoid Google Analytics cookies to be reset.
  16. Check your company’s firewall settings.
  17. Do not just rely on Google Analytics to capture referral data.

#1 Tag the URLs of all marketing campaigns

One of the most widely used methods to clean up direct traffic is to tag every URL of your marketing campaigns with the following campaign tracking parameters:

  1. utm_source
  2. utm_medium
  3. utm_term
  4. utm_content
  5. utm_campaign

The following is an example of a tagged URL:

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

The same URL when untagged will look like the one below:

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

Sometimes a referrer is dropped because of technical reasons.

Whenever a referrer is dropped, Google Analytics is not able to determine the origin of the traffic source and will report that traffic as direct traffic.

One effective way to ensure that the referrer is not dropped is by tagging the URLs of your marketing campaigns with the campaign tracking parameters.

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

#2 Tag each marketing campaign correctly

Use Google’s URL Builders to tag campaign URLs correctly:

campaign url builder

If you share a tagged link on Twitter with ‘utm_source=facebook’, then all the Twitter traffic will be reported as Facebook traffic by Google Analytics.

If you use incorrect campaign parameters (like ‘UTMSource=facebook’) then Google Analytics will completely ignore the referrer and treat the referral traffic as direct traffic.

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

Make sure all the pages of your website contain valid Google Analytics tracking code which fires 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 lands on your website via a web page ‘A’ which does not contain GA tracking code.

Then he navigates to web page ‘B’ which contains a valid GA tracking code.

Now, if your domain name is in the referral exclusion list, then 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, then 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.

results of tag analysis

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

privacy settings

Keep browser referral issues, privacy settings and add-ons in mind in order to capture as much referrer data as possible.

When redirecting visitors and search engines, keep the following factors in mind:

  1. Browser cookie policies esp. regarding third party cookies.
  2. The default privacy settings used by different browsers.
  3. Your company’s firewall settings.
  4. Ad blockers and add-ons which disable GA, third-party cookies or trackers.

Note: Always use server-side redirects (301) instead of meta and JavaScript redirects. Avoid redirect chains, as a referrer may drop during several redirects.

#5 Migrate your website to HTTPS

You should move your website to a secure connection (HTTPS://) as soon as possible.

Migrate your website to HTTPS

Migrate to HTTPS even if your website is not ecommerce and you are not collecting any sensitive personal data.

That way, you will be able to track referrer data from HTTPS websites, which you won’t be able to otherwise.

To move your website to a secure connection, you would need to get an SSL certificate for your domain.

You can get this certificate for free from Cloudflare.com, or you can purchase it from companies like comodo:

SSL certificate for your domain

Just make sure that the certificate you purchase supports mobile, your CDN supports SSL, 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 lose organic search traffic. You can redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS traffic by adding the following code to your .htaccess file:

migrate your website from HTTP to HTTPS

Note: Hire a professional SEO for the migration work unless you know exactly what you are doing. Otherwise, you may end up losing a lot of organic search traffic.

Once your website is moved to a secure connection, Google Chrome will display the lock icon next to your website address in the browser address bar.

lock icon next to your website address

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

#6 Block the Internal Traffic

The internal traffic is the traffic generated to your website by your employees, contractors and other service providers.

Since these people are not your target market, you should not track their activities on your website in GA.

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

For example, let us suppose your developers are heavily involved in testing or updating product catalogues every day.

Now they are going to visit your website all day, every day. All such traffic is likely to be reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

The popular way to block internal traffic is by applying IP based filters to a GA reporting view. However, I do not recommend this method.

Do not use IP based filters to block internal traffic

The IP based filters are not effective as IP addresses keep changing and the majority of people do not use static IPs.

So you may continue to work under the impression that you are already blocking internal traffic in GA when that is not the case.

Install and enable the Google Analytics opt-out add-on on all of your desktop/laptop computers.

Google Analytics opt out add on

I use this extension all of the time. It is a chrome extension that disables Google Analytics. 

So then, no matter how many times you or your staff visit your own website, your visits will not be recorded by Google Analytics.

It is independent of IP addresses. So a change in IP address won’t affect this extension. This extension is also available for other web browsers. 

However, make sure that you use only those browsers or machines to access your website where you have installed this extension.

Avoid visiting the website via tablet or mobile devices wherever possible. As this extension won’t work there. 

Ask all of your employees and contractors to install the Google Analytics opt-out add-on extension on their desktop or laptop computers.

Employees who are most likely to visit your website frequently are your web developers and web designers.

So make sure that at least they use the ‘Google Analytics Opt-out Add on’.

#7 Segment your direct traffic into two categories

The first category includes ‘Tablet and desktop’ direct visits. The second category includes ‘Mobile’ direct visits.

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

using custom segments in Google Analytics
Tablet and desktop traffic and Mobile traffic

Doing such a type of segmentation will give you a good idea of what your direct traffic is made up of and how you can minimise it.

#8 Look for correlation between your direct visits and marketing campaigns

Often when we launch a new marketing campaign (especially offline campaigns like TV Ads), there is a considerable increase in direct traffic to the website.

direct visits vs tv ad airing

You need to note down all such changes in direct traffic. 

So that later you can attribute traffic and conversions through direct traffic to the correct marketing campaign.

#9 Use phone call tracking solution

Let us suppose your website has been set up mainly to generate leads through phone calls.

This is a quite common scenario in the case of websites that sell high-priced items like properties, cars, yachts, consultation services, etc.

You often need to get on a call with the prospect in order to close the sale.

However, if you do not implement a commercial phone call tracking solution like CallTrackingMetrics then you will miss out on all the referral data.

Then you would not know which marketing channel or keywords generated the phone calls and where to invest time and money.

Do not just rely on Google Analytics to capture referrer data. 

Additional Reading: How to Track Phone Calls in Google Analytics – Call Tracking Tutorial

#10 Avoid using headless solutions

Avoid using headless solutions

‘Headless’ is a type of website architecture that separates the front-end of a website from the back-end.

The front-end denotes the user interface and the back-end denotes the website core functionality.

In the case of ‘headless’ architecture, the front-end and the back-end are de-coupled systems that communicate with each other through an API layer.

Headless websites are primarily used because they provide a superior user experience across different devices and platforms than traditional websites.

However, I do not recommend using headless solutions.

Since the front end is not tightly coupled with the backend, it can create a lot of tracking issues.

Most legacy tracking solutions like GA and GTM are simply not designed for headless websites.

So when you use such tracking solutions on a headless website, you can get a lot of data collections issues like:

It is common for headless websites to be plagued with attribution issues.

And all of this happens because you are trying to use JavaScript to create communication between the front-end and the back-end systems.

For headless websites, you should be using APIs to create all types of communications between the front-end and the back-end.

However, since API integration is the recommended method, you would be overdependent on developers for all your tracking needs.

Though headless tech has been around for almost a decade there is still no widespread adoption of it.

You make conversion attribution tracking unnecessary harder for yourself when you move away from the mainstream solutions, into experimental tech like headless.

There is very little information about headless solutions out there, in terms of troubleshooting data collection and data integration issues.

There are no industry best practices, no known and proven workaround, hardly any official documentation, hardly any discussion on forums.

You are pretty much on your own if something goes wrong with your tracking.

Most businesses would be better off sticking to traditional websites and traditional e-commerce.

Businesses that rely on headless solutions (like Amazon) usually have got a team of full-stack web developers and everything is custom built and maintained in-house.

If you want to advertise profitably for the foreseeable future and continue to get attribution data in your analytics reports then avoid using headless solutions.

#11 Use a TV Attribution Model

If you are a business that 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 touchpoints.

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. One such tool is Google Attribution 360:

attribution 360 1
tv attribution

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.

#12 Device new ways to capture referral data

Be innovative and devise new ways to capture referrer data. Do not just rely on your web analytics tool to capture referrer data.

For example, you can capture referrer data through lead generation forms, on-page surveys, email surveys, contests, over the phone etc.

You can ask your website visitors how they found your website, service or product.

Device new ways to capture referrer data

#13 Embed shortened tagged URLs in non-HTM documents

If the URL you embed in a non-HTML document (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 documents:

medium non html document

From the screenshot above, I can easily understand that someone clicked on a link embedded in a Microsoft Word document.

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

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

#15 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 issues and often hard to diagnose.

#16 Check your company’s firewall settings

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

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

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About the Author

Himanshu Sharma

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