Wait, traffic is hurting me? I want less traffic?
Really, I don't. I'll take as much legitimate
direct traffic as I can get. But, a lot of traffic can show up as direct because of problems with the way your tracking and analytics is set up.
I'll discuss this in the context of Google Analytics (aka GA) here, but the same applies to any system you're using to track your marketing efforts. What is Direct Traffic?
True, legitimate direct traffic is traffic that comes to you through people typing your URL into the browser, using a browser bookmark or other "direct" methods like that.
This is as opposed to coming through another source, such as clicking a link on another non-search website (a referral), doing a search in Google or Bing and clicking one of those links (put in the Organic channel by GA).
By default Google segments your data into a set of "channels" and gives you the definitions of those channels here: [support.google.com
...] You can modify those default channels, but we'll get to that later. Are you wasting your marketing efforts?
So Direct traffic is good, right? People are typing in your URL. They are loyal fans, right?
That might be true. If you just took out a Superbowl ad with your URL on it, that might get you a ton of direct traffic too. But for most of us, direct traffic will be a fairly modest contribution to the overall mix. If it's a large contributor, then it might mean that other sources of traffic have tracking problems and so you can't tell whether all that money you're spending on ads or effort you're putting into social media or your newsletter is working.
Ideally, you want only direct traffic to show as direct traffic and you want to track your marketing efforts to know which efforts are yielding results. What Causes Over-Reporting of Direct Traffic?
Lots of things. Any time your tracking breaks down, it's going to drop those sessions into direct. Cross-domain problems
If your site has shopping on one domain and checkout on another, you have to make sure that your analytics can recognize that when someone goes from shopping to checking out, it's the same person and the same session. This is called cross-domain tracking
This is a common setup. I work with hotels who all have their informational website, but when it comes to making reservations, you go to the Sabre system. Until recently, all Shopify shops worked this way. There are many examples.
If you see a very high number of conversions where the landing page is your checkout page, you might have a problem with cross-domain tracking. That's a whole topic in itself, but if your business spans multiple domains, especially your checkout process, you'll want to research cross-domain tracking. Email
If you send an email newsletter out and someone reads it from an application - Outlook on the desktop, their Gmail app on their phone, whatever - that will be direct traffic. They click on a link in the email, but that email has no referring website. So it's similar to a browser bookmark and will get counted as direct traffic
How do you get around that? You want to make sure you include UTM tags for source and medium, and that the medium is "email." You can also tag for campaign. So your URL would look like this
If that's confusing, don't worry. You don't have to understand the details because Google provides a tool for building URLs for your campaigns
Just remember: if you are sending a newsletter out, every link to your site should be tagged with UTM parameters. You don't have to get fancy. You can use the same parameters on every link. As long as you have the source and medium, you'll be able to track that conversion back to your newsletter. Secure to Non-Secure Referrals
Still running http? Look, it's time to buy a consonant! Get that S on the end for one reason: all referrals from https sites to your site are now going to show up in the direct bucket. As everyone else transitions to https, you are losing insight every day to which partners are most valuable.
I know some people still have their worries about https. Get over it. Just the better data is worth it. I've never seen traffic or rankings fall on a properly rolled-out https conversion. Tracking Blockers
More and more people are running Privacy Badger. Sorry, but you can't do anything about this.
I've done a study on a decent size website and measured tracking blockers over a reasonable number of pageviews (I think it was about 8,000, which was two days of data for the site in question) and found that 7% of users were actually blocking Google Analytics.
How did I do this? I served one image if the ga() function was available and another if it wasn't. Since GA uses first-party cookies, if the function is available, tracking should be working. Subsequently, I found an article by someone who did a larger study and got a similar number.
If you have a tech-oriented site, that number could go up. But except on, say, a forum on web security, I wouldn't expect it to go to 30% or anything like that. Off-line Ads
This is a case where people actually type in your URL, so it really is Direct, right? Sure, but no. Ideally, you would like to track that ad.
The simplest way to do that is to give a URL with a short "vanity" URL on it that gets redirected with all the UTM parameters you need. In other words, let's say I'm offering a spring special for radio listeners on the John Doe show.
The announcer will give the URL as example.com/john
But you will redirect that to
That's just one example. Radio is, of course, not a default channel grouping in Google Analytics, so you would want to set that up, but if you're spending that much on radio, it's worth the 15 minutes it would take to set that up Summary
So in short, direct traffic is great if what you're looking at is thousands of true fans who just type your URL in. Congratulations. You don't need Google or Facebook or advertising. You've crushed it.
But that's not likely what's actually happening. In all likelihood you're seeing
- broken cross-domain traffic
- improperly tagged email campaigns
- improperly redirected and tagged offline campaigns
- secure to non-secure referrals
- tracking blockers
You can't fix all of those, but if you want to figure out where your efforts are paying off, you want to fix as many of them as possible. What About You?
Have you had issues with over-reported direct traffic? What was the source? What did you do about it?