What is direct traffic in Google Analytics & why is it so high?

Last Updated: June 13, 2022

What is direct traffic in Google Analytics?

Direct traffic is that Google Analytics session (or visit) that starts without a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser. This is the most accurate definition of direct traffic. 

A referrer is like a source of your website traffic.

For example, when a user visits your website from facebook.com, then GA reports facebook.com as a referrer.

Similarly, when a user visits your website from abc.com, GA reports abc.com as a referrer.

The data which reports on a referrer is called the referral data. 

Whenever a referrer is not passed to your website, Google Analytics cannot determine the traffic’s source. All such traffic is then reported as direct traffic. 

So the direct traffic is not just the traffic that comes from typed URLs or bookmarks.

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

Initially, it was assumed that a higher level of direct traffic was better. However, that is not the case. There are many use cases where traffic is considered direct.

For example, traffic from incorrectly tagged campaigns, spam traffic from bots, traffic from bookmarks, traffic from untagged documents on your website, email links on your website, etc.

Whenever you notice that direct traffic is more than 20%, look at your tagging process and ensure that it is working fine.

Test a few campaign URLs and validate the data in real-time reports to ensure that it is attributed to the right source and medium.

In short, Google Analytics will report a traffic source as direct when it has no information about how a user arrived at your website.

Steps to view direct traffic in Google Analytics reports

Step-1: Firstly, log into your Google Analytics account.

Step-2: Click on the ‘Acquisition’ tab on the left-hand side.

why direct traffic high Acquistion tab

Step-3: In the ‘All traffic’ section, click on the ‘Channels’ tab.

why direct traffic high Channels

Step-4: Under ‘Default Channel Grouping’, you will see the ‘Direct’ channel, as shown below.

why direct traffic high Direct Traffic

How Google Analytics attributes conversions to Direct Traffic?

Google Analytics attributes conversions to direct traffic in two ways.

It depends upon whether you are looking into a Multi-Channel Funnel report or a Non-Multi-Channel Funnel report.

If you are looking into a Multi-Channel Funnel report

Multi Channel Funnel report

If you are looking into a Multi-Channel Funnel report, then by default, a conversion is attributed to direct traffic only when it is the last touchpoint on a conversion path.

Suppose a person clicked on an organic search listing to visit your website. He then later returned to your website directly and made a purchase. A Multi-Channel Funnel report will attribute the conversion to the direct traffic as it was the last touchpoint on a conversion path. 

If you are looking into a Non-Multi-Channel Funnel report

If you are looking into a Non-Multi-Channel Funnel report, then a conversion is attributed to the previous non-direct campaign/traffic source (if there is one).

Suppose a person clicked on an organic search listing to visit your website. He then later returned to your website directly and made a purchase. 

Now a Non-Multi-Channel Funnel report will attribute the conversion to the organic search and not to the direct traffic. 

This is because ‘Organic Search’ was the previous non-direct traffic source on the conversion path.

Attribution Modelling in Google Analytics and Beyond
Attribution Modelling in Google Ads and Facebook

Get my best selling books on Attribution Modelling

  • Learn to implement attribution modelling in your organisation
  • Understand the customer purchase journey across devices
  • Determine the most effective marketing channels for investment

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So Google attributes conversions to direct traffic in two 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 analyzing 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. This is because these reports show more accurate customer purchase journeys when the conversion paths include direct traffic.

Direct traffic is ‘unknown’ traffic

Most people assume that 100% of direct traffic is made up of the traffic that directly visits 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 cannot determine the origin of the traffic source, it reports that traffic as direct traffic.

Whenever a referrer is not passed or dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics cannot 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 confusion regarding the traffic source’s origin.

Direct traffic is actually a demand

Contrary to popular belief, ‘Direct’ traffic is not really a marketing channel; it is a ‘demand’ created due to investment in marketing activities.

People will not automatically find your website and visit it directly. They find and visit your website in response to some online or offline marketing activity. 

This marketing activity can also include word-of-mouth publicity.

If most of your website sales and conversions are being attributed to direct traffic, you may get the impression that your brand power is driving sales and not the marketing campaigns. However, this is generally not the case.

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

Your direct traffic will most likely 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 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 into the browser address bar:

type part of the website URL into the browser address bar

The web browser then auto-fills the remaining part of the URL, and the user ends up directly visiting the website.

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

For example, look at the report below:

why direct traffic high 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 plays 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 that were from direct traffic. The rest were from display ads, email, organic,  social media and applications/campaigns in which the referrers were not passed.

Additional Reading: 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:

why direct traffic high you only see this part by default

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

They are generally exposed to multiple marketing channels or touchpoints 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 give conversion credit to direct traffic.

If you look at the report above, organic search plays a key role in driving direct traffic to the website, eventually achieving goal conversions and ecommerce transactions.

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

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

Examples of direct traffic

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

  1. ‘Type-in’ traffic
  2. Traffic from bookmarks
  3. Traffic from mobile apps
  4. Traffic from non-web documents
  5. Traffic from desktop email clients
  6. Traffic from instant messenger (IM) or online chat rooms
  7. Traffic from incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns
  8. Traffic from web browsers that do not send referrer data
  9. Traffic from redirected URLs that do not send referrer data
  10. Traffic from IOS’ open in…’
  11. Traffic from a link that uses the ‘rel=noreferrer’ attribute
  12. Traffic from the firewall which does not send referrer data
  13. Fake direct traffic from spambots
  14. HTTPS to HTTP redirect
  15. Dark social

#1 ‘Type in’ traffic

Type in traffic

Following are the examples of various type-in traffic:

  1. Users visit your website by typing your brand name followed by .com in the browser address bar.
  2. Users copy and paste the website URL from another source into the browser address bar to visit your website.
  3. Users visit your website by typing your brand name and then clicking on one of the URLs suggested by their web browser.

Sometimes people try to visit your website by typing your brand name followed by .com in the browser address bar. They do so 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.

For example,

If a user directly enters optimizesmart.com in the browser’s address bar and clicks on ‘Enter’, that session will appear as direct traffic in the Google Analytics reports because the referrer was not available in this case.

Sometimes people copy and paste the website URL from another source into the browser address bar.
If they succeed in visiting your website, all such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

Sometimes people try to visit your website by typing your brand name and then clicking on one of the URLs suggested by their web browser.

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

#2 Traffic from bookmarks

Traffic from bookmarks

If a user visits your website from a bookmark, then GA may start a new session without a referrer being passed by the user’s web browser. Hence the traffic would be reported as direct traffic by GA.

However, you need to keep the following points in mind:

Suppose a user landed on your web page via Google organic search and then bookmarked the page. After six months, the user returned to your web page via the bookmark.

His visit could now be reported as a direct visit by GA (as by default, the campaign cookie expires after six months).

But if the user landed on your web page via Google organic search, bookmarked the page, and then later returned to the page within six months via a bookmark, then his visit could have been reported as a visit from organic search and not direct.

This is because by default campaign cookie expires after six months.

To learn more about campaign timeout, check out this article: Understand Session & Campaign Timeout in Google Analytics

#3 Traffic from apps

Most mobile, desktop, and social media applications do not send a referrer. So traffic from such apps is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

Clicks from mobile apps are mostly prone to stripping out the referrer data, so the traffic from apps will be considered direct traffic in Google Analytics.

#4 Traffic from non-web documents

Traffic from non web documents

Non-web documents (like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, etc.) do not send a referrer.
Traffic from such documents is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

So if a user clicks on a link embedded in a word document to visit your website, then GA would start a new session but without a referrer being passed by the user’s web browser.

Hence the traffic would be reported as direct traffic.

If you are sharing links via non-web documents, then use the UTM campaign tracking parameters in the embedded URLs like the one below:

https://www.optimizesmart.com/install-google-analytics-4-on-shopify/?utm_source=ms-word&utm_medium=non-web-document&utm_campaign=channel-grouping-in-google-analytics

#5 Traffic from desktop email clients

Traffic from desktop email clients

Desktop email clients (like Microsoft Outlook) do not send a referrer. Traffic from such email clients is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

So if a user clicks on a link embedded in an Outlook email to visit your website, then GA would start a new session but without a referrer being passed by the user’s web browser.

Hence the traffic would be reported as direct traffic.

#6 Traffic from instant messenger (IM) or online chat rooms

Traffic from the instant messenger

Instant messenger (like Skype, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp etc.) and other online chat rooms do not send a referrer. Traffic from such apps is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

So if a user clicks on a link shared by another user on Skype to visit your website, then GA would start a new session but without a referrer being passed by the user’s web browser.

Hence the traffic would be reported as direct traffic.

#7 Traffic from incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns

Traffic from incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns

Incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns can cause the referrer data to drop, and the traffic is reported as direct traffic.

For example,

If you share a tagged link on Twitter with ‘utmSource=twitter‘ as one of the campaign tracking parameters, then all the Twitter traffic will be reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

This is because GA would completely ignore the referrer as ‘utmSource‘ is not a valid campaign tracking variable.

utm_source is the valid campaign tracking variable.

Similarly,

If you share a tagged link on Twitter but use ‘utm_source=facebook‘ as one of the campaign tracking parameters, then all the Twitter traffic will be reported as Facebook traffic by Google Analytics.

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

Traffic from web browsers that do not send referrer data

The sending of referrer data depends entirely on the web browser being used by your website users. If a user’s web browser does not pass the referrer data, there is no way to get it.

For example, by default, the ‘Brave’ web browser does not send referrer data.

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 browser privacy settings, add-ons or ad-blockers used by a user can cause the referrer to drop and not pass.

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

One thing worth noting is that privacy settings and add-ons can not stop search engines like Google from sending referrer data because they do not send the original referrer header in the first place. 

That is why they can also bypass the HTTP secure connection protocol and pass referrer from HTTPS to HTTP website. You can also use the same tactic to pass referrer data.

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

The sending of referrer data also depends upon the redirect method being used.

For example,

302 redirects, meta and JavaScript redirects often cause the referrer to be dropped. Whereas 301 redirects have better cross-browser compatibility when it comes to passing the referrer data.

That’s why you should give preference to 301 redirects wherever you can.

If you use the 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.

#10 Traffic from IOS ‘open in…’

Traffic from IOS ‘Open in

The referrer data is not passed when you use an option like ‘open in Safari‘ or ‘open in Chrome‘ in IOS (Apple’s mobile operating system). 

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

relnoreferrer

A referrer is not passed in the case of traffic that came from a link that uses the ‘rel=noreferrer’ attribute.

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

Sometimes your users’ 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 Spambots

A spambot is a program that is developed for malicious purposes like:

  • To commit click fraud (for depleting competitors’ advertising budget)
  • Scrape email addresses from websites for mass spamming.
  • Send fake traffic to websites for the purpose of committing fraud in digital advertising. 

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

A fake hit is the one that is generated by a spambot instead of as a result of a living, breathing human being who interacted with your website.

A ‘hit’ is a user interaction with your website that results in data being sent to your Google Analytics property. A hit can be a ‘pageview’, ‘screenview’, ‘event‘, ‘transaction‘ etc.

At present, it is possible to fake any GA hit. 

What that means is that a spammer can send fake direct traffic, fake referral traffic, fake organic search traffic, etc. to your GA property:

fake organic search traffic
referrer spam ghost visit

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

  1. Spambots that crawl your website. 
  2. Spambots that do not crawl your website.

Spambots that crawl your website can visit your website without sending referrer data. All such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics. 

Spambots that do not visit your website can send fake hits to your GA property by abusing the measurement protocol.

If you see a sudden and massive spike in direct traffic with a bounce rate close to 100% and an average session duration close to 0 seconds, then most probably your website was attacked by a spambot.

Additional Reading: How to Stop Google Analytics Spam – Remove Referral Spam

Also, ensure you have enabled the bot filtering settings in your Google Analytics account. Enable this setting in all the views except for the RAW view.

To enable bot filtering in Google Analytics, follow the steps below:

Step-1: Log in to your Google Analytics account and navigate to your main reporting view.

Step-2: Scroll down and click on the ‘Admin‘ link on the left-hand side.

why direct traffic high Admin Settings

Step-3: Under the ‘View‘ column, click on ‘View Settings‘.

why direct traffic high View Settings

Step-4: Scroll down and then click on the checkbox named ‘Exclude all hits from known bots and spiders’:

why direct traffic high Bot Filtering Settings

#14 Traffic from secure pages (HTTPS) to non-secure pages (HTTP)

HTTPS to HTTP redirect

During an HTTPS to HTTP redirect, a referrer is not passed. All such traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

So if your website is on HTTP and someone visits your website from an HTTPS website, then the user’s web browser will not send referrer data to your GA property.

This is done to follow the secure protocol, which states that:

“If a website is accessed from an HTTP Secure (HTTPS) connection and a link points to anywhere except another secure location, then the referrer field is not sent”. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_referer

However, 

If your website is on HTTPS and someone visits your website from another HTTPS website, then the user’s web browser will send referrer data to your GA property.

This is because both websites use a secure connection.

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

visual summary of when a referrer data is passed and not passed

Every major website, browser and search engine moved to secure connections (HTTPS) long ago.

So, if your website is still using HTTP, then in the not too distant future, you could end up losing the majority of your website referrer data for good.

That’s why it is important to use HTTPS (secure connection) for your website.

#15 Dark social

Dark social is the traffic that refers to referrals from Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Skype, email, etc.

Basically, dark social sharing happens when someone copies a link and pastes it into a closed social channel, such as WhatsApp or email.

In this process, the metadata link is lost, and the traffic coming from these channels is considered direct. Ideally, this traffic should be contributed to the social channel in Google Analytics, but since the referrer information is lost, this traffic is considered direct in Google Analytics.

Let us consider an example to understand dark social a little better.

You have an article on your website that can be shared via social media platforms like Facebook Messenger or Email.

A user who visited your website copied the article link and shared it with one of his friends using Facebook Messenger. This means he has shared the article via dark social.

This traffic is considered direct traffic, although the user has not entered the URL directly in the browser.

Ideally, dark social is referral traffic that is wrongly attributed to the direct traffic in Google Analytics.

Steps for minimizing direct traffic in Google Analytics

  • Make sure to tag all your marketing campaigns correctly
  • Properly identify each and every campaign
  • Tag each link within your campaigns
  • Check your company firewall settings.

For detailed information for minimizing direct traffic in Google Analytics, follow the steps mentioned in this article: How to reduce direct traffic in Google Analytics.

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

Google Analytics can report on 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 the 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 the case of ‘(direct) / (none)‘, ‘none’ is the traffic medium.

To see direct traffic reported as a traffic source, follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to your main GA reporting view.

Step-2: Navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium report:

why direct traffic high direct traffic as traffic source

Step-3: Under the column ‘Source/Medium’ look for ‘(direct) / (none)

Whenever a referrer is not passed or dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics cannot 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’.

Attribution Modelling in Google Analytics and Beyond
Attribution Modelling in Google Ads and Facebook

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  • Understand the customer purchase journey across devices
  • Determine the most effective marketing channels for investment

 Click book covers to find out more

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 the same medium.

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

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

To see direct traffic reported as a marketing channel, follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to your main GA reporting view.

Step-2: Navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report:

why direct traffic high direct traffic as channel

Step-3: Under the ‘Default Channel Grouping’ column, look for ‘Direct‘.

Is direct traffic a good thing?

If the traffic reported is genuine, then direct traffic is definitely a good thing.

Assuming that it is clean organic traffic, not accidental traffic that has been attributed as direct traffic, then it is a great way to identify the effectiveness of the campaigns that you are running.

Also, the more people that know your website and directly type it into the browser, the better. In addition, there is a high chance that users who have bookmarked your website will become repeat visitors.

How does direct traffic work?

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

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

To understand ‘referrer’, you first need to understand HTTP. So let us start with HTTP and then 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 comprises request lines and headers (also called HTTP request headers).

Similarly, each HTTP response comprises status line and response headers (also called HTTP response headers).

This is what an HTTP request looks like:

1 1 2

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 posts (You are doing Google Analytics all wrong. Here is why) from my Google+ page.

As so you can see from the screenshot above, the referrer is just one of the HTTP request headers, 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

Since the request was made to my webserver, my server has to communicate back (it has to obey HTTP protocols) to the user’s browser. It does so by sending an HTTP response.

This is what an HTTP response looks like:

1 2 2

My web server sent this response to the user’s browser.

Attribution Modelling in Google Analytics and Beyond
Attribution Modelling in Google Ads and Facebook

Get my best selling books on Attribution Modelling

  • Learn to implement attribution modelling in your organisation
  • Understand the customer purchase journey across devices
  • Determine the most effective marketing channels for investment

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How to see the HTTP request and response headers

You can’t see HTTP request and response headers by viewing a web page’s source code. 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 the Google Chrome browser.

Follow the steps below:

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

inspect google chrome

This will open the developer’s tool window at the bottom of your browser.

Step-2: Click on the ‘Network‘ tab:

network tab

You should now see a screen like the one below:

recording network activity

Step-3: Press F5 to reload your web page or click the browser refresh button.

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

find url of the web page

Step-5: Click on the ‘Headers’ tab:

headers tab

On the right-hand side of the developer’s window, you should now be able to see all the HTTP response and request headers:

request and response headers

Step-6: Scroll down and search for ‘Referrer‘ in the HTTP request header:

referrer

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 headers (see the screenshot below):

cookie

So cookie data is sent via an HTTP request to a web server.

HTTPS and referrer

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

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

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 a secure connection.

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

1 8 1

So if one day, all websites move to HTTPS and your website doesn’t, then you will lose the 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 an HTTPS website to an HTTP website.

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

As mentioned earlier, you can send referrer data from an 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 are they able to do that? They all use an internal redirect script that first redirects a visitor to an HTTP page (which creates its own referrer data) before sending the visitor to the actual URL on an HTTP website.

For example, if you click on this link:

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

from the following 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 an HTTPS website to an HTTP website, thus honouring the Secure Protocol, which states that:

If a website is accessed from an 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 thus protect users’ privacy.

Google Search Engine also uses the same tactic as it redirects you through another URL. That is why Google can send referrer data to HTTP websites even when on a secure connection

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 chooses 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 an HTTP website?

If you want to know what referrer data search engines (like Google, Bing and Yahoo) are sending to an 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 the top right-hand side of your browser:

1 9 1

Step-2: Search for a keyword phrase for which your HTTP website ranks 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:

1 10 1

You can also 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:

1 11 1
  1. Difference between direct traffic and referral traffic
  2. Why is direct traffic increasing and how to fix it?
  3. How to reduce Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?
  4. Causes of Sudden Spike in Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Frequently Asked Questions about 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. Whenever a referrer is not passed or dropped for technical reasons, Google Analytics cannot determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

How does Google Analytics report direct traffic?

Google Analytics can report direct traffic in two ways:
#1 As a traffic source – navigate to ‘Sources/Medium’ report in GA.
#2 As a marketing channel – navigate to ‘Channels’ report in GA.

What is a marketing channel in Google Analytics?

In the context of Google Analytics, a channel or a marketing channel is a group of several traffic sources with the same medium. For example, ‘Direct’ is a marketing channel that can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘none’.

In other words, a 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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My best selling books on Digital Analytics and Conversion Optimization

Maths and Stats for Web Analytics and Conversion Optimization
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Master the Essentials of Email Marketing Analytics
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This book has been written to help you implement attribution modelling in Google Ads (Google AdWords) and Facebook. It will teach you, how to leverage the knowledge of attribution modelling in order to understand the customer purchasing journey and determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

About the Author

Himanshu Sharma

  • Founder, OptimizeSmart.com
  • Over 15 years of experience in digital analytics and marketing
  • Author of four best-selling books on digital analytics and conversion optimization
  • Nominated for Digital Analytics Association Awards for Excellence
  • Runs one of the most popular blogs in the world on digital analytics
  • Consultant to countless small and big businesses over the decade
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