Why is direct traffic increasing and how to fix it in Google Analytics

Last Updated: January 18, 2023

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.

The top reasons direct traffic is increasing in Google Analytics.

  1. One or more URLs of your marketing campaigns are incorrectly tagged.
  2. Not all URLs of your marketing campaigns are tagged.
  3. Google Analytics tracking code is missing on one or more pages.
  4. Untagged email marketing campaigns.
  5. Incorrect use of data filters in Google Analytics.
  6. Incorrect cross-domain tracking.
  7. You use a headless solution.
  8. You use a single page application (SPA).
  9. Internal traffic can result in a lot of direct traffic.
  10. Your website is still using a non-secure connection.
  11. Caching can cause the traffic to be reported as direct traffic.
  12. Your demand generation strategy can result in a lot of direct traffic.
  13. An increasing number of your website users are using adblockers.
  14. Increased brand awareness can result in more people visiting your website via bookmarks or directly.
  15. Your website may be getting fake direct traffic from spambots.

#1 One or more URLs of your marketing campaigns are incorrectly tagged.

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

And whenever a referrer is dropped, Google Analytics cannot determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

Use Google URL builders to tag campaign URLs correctly.

#2 Not all URLs of your marketing campaigns are tagged.

Sometimes a referrer is dropped because of technical reasons. 

And whenever a referrer is dropped, Google Analytics cannot determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

One effective way to ensure that the referrer is not dropped because of technical reasons is by tagging the URLs of your marketing campaigns with the following campaign tracking parameters:

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

Following is an example of a tagged URL:

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

The 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 of your marketing campaigns.

#3 Google Analytics tracking code is missing on one or more pages.

Make sure all the web pages on your website have got a valid Google Analytics tracking code that fires on page load. 

Otherwise, traffic from your 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 that does not contain Google Analytics (GA) tracking code. Then he navigates to the web page B, which contains a valid GA tracking code.

If your domain name is in the referral exclusion list, 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 codes.

#4 Untagged email marketing campaigns.

For many businesses, untagged email marketing campaigns can be one of the biggest reasons for direct traffic being reported by Google Analytics.

Suppose you have 100,000 people on your mailing list, and you send out four newsletters a month.

Let us also suppose the links embedded in your newsletter emails are not tagged or incorrectly tagged with UTM parameters.

When people visit your website via your email newsletter, all such traffic can be reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

Since you send out emails to 100,000 people, and that too four times a month, Google Analytics can report a lot of direct traffic.

#5 Incorrect use of data filters in Google Analytics.

The incorrect use of data filters in Google Analytics can result in more direct traffic being reported.

When the data filters are used incorrectly, it can cause referrer data to be lost, resulting in more direct traffic being reported in GA reports.

Suppose you create a data filter to exclude all traffic from a specific IP address.

If that IP address belongs to a search engine crawler (like ‘Googlebot’), it will stop the search engine’s referral information from passing to GA. 

And whenever the referrer data is not passed, the traffic is reported as direct traffic by GA. 

#6 Incorrect cross-domain tracking.

When cross-domain tracking is not implemented correctly in GA, it can result in an increase in direct traffic.  

Consider two websites: abc.com and xyz.com.

Suppose a user clicked on a link from abc.com to xyz.com.

If cross-domain tracking is not set up correctly, GA will record the user’s visit to xyz.com as direct traffic rather than referral traffic from abc.com.

#7 You use a headless solution.

headless solutions are problematic

‘Headless’ is a type of website architecture that separates the frontend of a website from the backend.

The frontend denotes the user interface, and the backend denotes the website’s core functionality.

In the case of ‘headless’ architecture, the front and backend are de-coupled systems that communicate through an API layer.

A headless solution refers to a website or web application that uses two servers for maintenance, one for the front-end and one for the back-end.

The front-end server handles the user interface of the website.

The back-end server is responsible for handling the website’s back-end (aka core) functionality.

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

A headless solution can stop the GA tracking code from executing when a page is initially loaded, thus causing the user’s session to be recorded as direct traffic.

This can happen if the JavaScript framework used for the frontend does not execute the tracking code until the page has fully loaded or if the tracking code is not included in the initial HTML response from the server.

Most legacy tracking solutions like GA4 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 frontend and the backend systems.

For headless websites, you should be using APIs to create all types of communications between the frontend and the backend. 

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 unnecessarily 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, and hardly any discussion on forums.

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

For most businesses, you 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 getting attribution data in your analytics reports, avoid using headless solutions.

FAQ: We have already invested a lot of resources in developing and maintaining a headless website. How can we fix the direct traffic issue?

Ensure the JavaScript framework used for the frontend executes the GA tracking code as soon as the page loads or the tracking code is included in the initial HTML response from the server.

#8 You use a single page application (SPA)

In the case of a traditional website, when a user clicks on an internal link, the user’s web browser sends a request to the server for a new HTML page. 

When the browser requests the server, it sends a referrer header containing information about the previous web page. 

The server then generates and returns the new HTML page. 

The browser then loads and displays the new web page. This process is called a full-page refresh or traditional page navigation.

In the case of Single Page Applications (SPAs), traditional page navigation does not occur. 

When a user clicks on an internal link, the user’s web browser does not send a request to the server for a new HTML page. 

Instead, the JavaScript running in the user’s web browser updates the content dynamically without a full-page refresh. This process is called client-side navigation.

Since the browser does not send a request to the server, the referrer header is not sent, and the traffic is reported as direct traffic in Google Analytics.

Additionally, when a SPA updates the content dynamically, it can change the URL without making a new request to the server.

Since the browser does not send a request to the server, the referrer header is not sent, and the traffic is reported as direct traffic in Google Analytics.

Since traditional page navigation does not occur in SPA, it can result in GA not recording new pageviews and instead treating the traffic as direct traffic.

You need to correctly configure your GA tracking code for SPA to track client-side navigation. 

#9 Internal traffic can result in a lot of direct traffic.

Internal traffic is the traffic generated by your employees and other service providers. 

Since they are not your target audience, you should exclude them from your Google Analytics reports.

If your company has many employees that frequently visit your website to maintain it, it could cause a sharp increase in direct traffic in Google Analytics.

Your employees will frequently visit your website via a bookmark or by typing the website URL directly into their browser address bar. All such traffic will be reported as direct traffic.

Additionally, if your website is accessed through an intranet or VPN, it may be classified as direct traffic in Google Analytics. 

#10 Your website is still using a non-secure connection.

Every major website, browser and search engine has moved to a secure connection (HTTPS ://).

If your website is still using HTTP, then 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 a secure connection (HTTPS ://) ASAP, even if your website is not e-commerce and you are not collecting any sensitive personal data.

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

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 a free shared SSL certificate for WordPress websites. So you really have no excuse to move your website to a secure connection.

If for some reason, you can not get the free SSL certificate from Cloudflare or you want a stronger and more reliable secure connection, you can purchase it from companies like ‘Comodo‘ or ‘Digicert‘.

Just make sure that the certificate you purchase supports 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 losing a lot of organic search traffic.

Once your website is moved to a secure connection, Google Chrome will display the ‘secure’ message and/or lock icon next to your website address like the one below:

secure

This message is proof that your website is on a 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 a referrer, traffic will be reported as direct traffic by GA).

Hence once you have moved to a 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 a good advertising platform.

#11 Caching can cause the traffic to be reported as direct traffic.

Caching is storing frequently accessed data in a temporary location (browser cache, server cache) to reduce the time and resources required to access the data in the future. 

Google Analytics tracking code is generally unaffected by caching as it is usually placed in the head section of a web page. And the head section is usually not cached by web browsers and servers.

So when a user loads a web page with Google Analytics tracking code, the code will fire and send data to the GA servers, regardless of whether the web page is cached.

However, there could be cases where a web browser, plugin or CDN can cache the head section of a web page or cache JavaScript files and thus stop the GA tracking code from firing when a user loads a web page from their browser cache.

This can result in Google Analytics not recording the referral information and reporting the referral traffic as direct traffic.

Configure your CDN or caching plugin to work with your GA tracking code by not caching the head section of a web page and JavaScript files.

Since the GA tracking code is in the head section of a web page or embedded within the javascript file, it will not be cached, ensuring that it will execute and send data to the GA servers every time the page is loaded.

#12 Your demand generation strategy can result in a lot of direct traffic.

For example, if you mainly use podcasts to drive traffic and sales, most of your customers could visit your website directly. All such traffic would be reported as direct traffic in Google Analytics.

Similarly, most customers could visit your website directly if your offline marketing is much stronger than your online marketing.

Your company may be heavily involved in advertising on TV, radio, podcasts, billboards or participating in offline events (like conferences and trade shows).

As a result, more people are becoming aware of your brand and visiting your website directly.

#13 An increasing number of your website users are using adblockers.

Ad blockers can cause referrer data to drop in Google Analytics.

And whenever a referrer is dropped, Google Analytics cannot determine the origin of the traffic source and report that traffic as direct traffic.

Some ad blockers can modify the referrer data. It can result in referrer data being reported as direct traffic.

So if a big portion of your website users is using adblockers, it could increase direct traffic in Google Analytics.

#14 Increased brand awareness can result in more people visiting your website via bookmarks or directly.

An increase in brand awareness can result in more people directly visiting your website via bookmarks or by typing the website URL in the browser address bar.

When people are more aware of your brand, they are more likely to remember your website URL and type it directly into the browser address bar. This results in direct traffic being reported in Google Analytics.

Similarly, increased brand recall can result in more people bookmarking your website and visiting it directly.

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

#15 Your website may be getting fake direct traffic from spambots

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 results in data being sent to your Google Analytics property.

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

A fake hit is generated by a spambot instead of as a result of a living, breathing human being interacting with your website.

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

That means a spammer can send fake direct traffic, fake referral traffic, fake organic traffic, fake traffic from social media, etc.

A spammer can fake events, virtual pageviews, screen views, hostnames, request URI, keywords and even transaction and item data.

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

  1. Spambots which visit websites
  2. Spambots which do not visit websites

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

Spambots that 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 seconds, then most probably your website has been attacked by a spam bot.

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

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