Understanding Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

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When the client first came to you, you talked up the value of Google Analytics. You emphasized the importance of seeing where your traffic was coming from. You went on and on about how Google Analytics can show traffic sources to pinpoint whether people came from search, social media or a specific site referral, and how valuable this data was. You sold them on it, so much so that your client looked forward to receiving that first report, the magical day when they would finally understand where visitors were coming from.
But then the report came, and it looked like this:

 

Google Analytics Direct Traffic

 

It showed that 10% of your client’s traffic came from “(direct)/(none)”. What does this label mean? How do you explain Direct traffic to your client? Better yet, how do you explain “none”?
Let’s take a closer look at understanding Direct traffic in Google Analytics and how we can address it with clients.

What Is Direct Traffic?

First, when does a Direct session occur? It could be that someone typed a domain name (like Megalytic.com) into their browser or used a bookmark to directly access your site. However, Direct also includes a much broader pool of traffic, far beyond those two instances. Essentially, Direct sessions occur any time Google Analytics cannot determine another referrer. Other instances can include:

  • Clicking a link from an email (depending on email provider/program)
  • Clicking a link from a Microsoft Office or PDF document
  • Accessing the site from a shortened URL (depending on the URL shortener)
  • Clicking a link from a Mobile social media apps like Facebook or Twitter. Phone apps often do not pass referrer information.
  • Going to a non-secure (http) site from a link on a secure (https) site, as the secure site won’t pass a referrer to the non-secure site. For instance, if someone clicks a link on https://example.com to go to http://example2.com, the analytics for example2.com will show the session as direct.
  • Accessing a site from organic search, in some instances, will end up being reported as Direct due to browser issues. An experiment conducted by Groupon showed as much as 60% of direct traffic may be from organic search.

As you can see, Direct traffic can encompass a wide range of sources, including those you would have liked to have tracked in analytics. Fortunately, while you can’t salvage the sources for 100% of the traffic lumped into the Direct category, you can take measures to ensure you accurately track as much traffic as possible.

Fixes For Direct Traffic

One way to address proper allocation of Direct traffic is to add tracking parameters or to tag URLs used in specific campaigns. For example, you can prevent traffic from your April email campaign from being miscategorized as Direct by adding parameters that ensure all Sessions from this campaign shows up as “Email” in GA.

Google’s URL Builder tool makes the process of tagging URLs simple.

 

Google URL Builder

 

To get started, enter your URL in the first field, then fill in the rest with terms that relate to your particular campaign. In this instance the Source is “newsletter,” Medium is “email” and Campaign Name is “april-update” to delineate the specific email.

Sessions from this email will now show up as newsletter/email in the Source/Medium report (Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium) in Google Analytics. In addition to helping prevent this traffic as being lumped as Direct, you’ll also be able to more accurately measure performance from your newsletter campaigns by seeing data in one place.

 

Google Analytics Tracking Newsletter Emails

 

Note that some email marketing platforms, such as MailChimp and Constant Contact, offer the option to automatically tag URLs with parameters. You can take advantage of this feature to avoid having to manually tag every URL. However, be aware that if you want to maintain consistency in tagging standards, you’re better off manually tagging URLs. For more details, see our post on Consistent Tagging for Better Campaign Tracking.

The URL builder will also help you solve issues with shortened URLs being categorized as Direct. See our article on the Dangers of Shortened URLs for more information on this topic.

Also, if you are placing a link on a secure (https) site and linking to your site on a non-secure (http) domain, you’ll want to add tracking parameters to be sure the referrer carries over.

Direct Traffic Problem Scenario

For an example of the problems that can result from https to http traffic, see the dramatic drop in the graph below.

 

Google Analytics lost the HTTPS Referrer

 

In this recent instance, a company offering software development training courses suddenly saw referrals drop from Scrum Alliance, a particular site where listings had previously generated significant revenue. The listings were still being posted to Scrum Alliance regularly, so there seemed to be no reason for a sudden decrease in referrals. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that this decrease in referrals correlated with an increase in Direct traffic, so they suspected something was amiss with Google Analytics’ tracking of the referrals from this site.

Upon further digging, they noticed the date when GA stopped tracking referrals from Scrum Alliance correlated with an upgrade in which the entire site switched to https, while the destination site remained http. All referrals were now being counted as Direct. To solve this problem, the links from Scrum Alliance were updated to include tracking parameters, with a long-term recommendation of switching the whole destination site to https.

Learning from this example, realize that a drop in traffic from a particular source does not necessarily mean a drop in traffic. It could indicate a case in which that source ended up being categorized under Direct traffic. Look for red flags, such as sudden increases in Direct traffic correlating with sudden decreases of other sources.

In addition, proactively use tracking parameters in cases where you may be risking not properly seeing traffic. Especially since you can’t retroactively correct data in GA, you want to ensure that you have the most accurate data possible to present to your clients.

Explaining Direct Traffic to Clients

When you see Direct traffic on the rise, how do you explain this subset of web traffic to your clients? As previously explained, don’t just explain it away saying, “This many people typed in your URL to go right to your site!”

Be transparent about the fact that data from any number of sources could end up in the Direct bucket. Explain all the different scenarios that could result in Direct, such as email, search or links from https sites. While in some ways frustrating, this knowledge can play to your advantage in an SEO campaign, showing your client that they likely have received more organic search traffic than Google Analytics shows.

When problems occur that result in miscategorized traffic, such as untagged email links, explain to your client the need to properly tag links in order to track traffic correctly. Being proactive about addressing past issues will show your client you care about presenting the most accurate data possible.

Conclusion

Direct traffic can be the bane of many analytics professionals’ existence. However, taking the right steps to address potentially miscategorized traffic, as well as being upfront with clients about the causes, can help to mitigate problems. Take the time to understand Direct traffic, as well as situations relating to your website in which you can ensure you have the most accurate tracking possible.

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  • Shelton Oliver

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been guilty of using the “This many people typed in… ” explanation, but this is a great way to demonstrate ones value add to customers

    • markdhansen

      Glad you like the post. I think we’ve all used that explanation, while in the back of our minds knowing that it was wrong. Giving a little more detail in an explanation of Direct traffic is harder, but it adds value and shows what you know!

  • @DigiDonDraper

    Some good work-arounds but… isn’t the main point that Google should be fixing this issue with Analytics?

    • markdhansen

      Its not a problem with Google. Its actually a problem with how browser and apps work. Sometimes they just are not providing the referral information.

      • I disagree ~ Google analytics could work within browser capabilities. The workarounds are due to poor implementations and or restrictions. ‘Not Provided’, ‘Ghost / Spam Referrals’, etc… are all things that could be implemented correctly if the mighty G wanted it so…

        • There are different issues here. When there is no referral information in the HTTP header, then no analytics software, not Google, Adobe, IBM, anybody, is going to be able to tell you where the traffic came from. Referrals from mobile apps, in particular, often do not put the referral information in the HTTP header, so the site receiving the traffic has no way of know where the traffic came from.

          ‘Not Provided’ is an intentional choice that Google has made not to provide organic keyword data. This choice is a byproduct of encrypting keywords, which Google states is being done to protect user privacy.

          ‘Ghost / Spam Referrals’ happen because the bad guys (spammers) are exploiting the Google Analytics Measurement Protocol (https://developers.google.com/analytics/devguides/collection/protocol/v1/) to spoof visits to your site. Google probably can provide a technical solution to this problem by including authentication in the protocol. However, this will require changes on Google’s end, and on our end to implement – change in our tracking code. I’m sure that this will happen eventually, but its probably taking a while because of internal debates as to the best way to make it happen while creating the least hassle for users.

          • GTP

            “Referrals from mobile apps, in particular, often do not put the referral information in the HTTP header, so the site receiving the traffic has no way of know where the traffic came from.”

            We suspect that we’re having this problem. 92% of our traffic is mobile and most of our identifiable traffic, that we can see at least, comes from Facebook. I’m under the impression that our direct traffic (which accounts for more than 60% of our overall traffic) is coming from the Facebook mobile app.

            Would tagging the links we post on Facebook solve, or at least contribute to solving, this issue?

          • Yes, tagging will help. But, if other people share links to your site, these will not be tagged, of course. So, it only improves the tracking on the links you share. See: https://megalytic.com/blog/consistent-tagging-for-better-campaign-tracking

          • GTP

            We get some shares, but my hypothesis at this time is that most of our Facebook traffic comes directly from the links we post. If I’m right, tagging our links from here on out should help a lot. Thank you for not only writing the article, but being involved in the discussion!

          • Yes, tagging should help. Good luck! Come back in a few weeks and let us know if it made a difference.

  • OMFG…. why the fuck do they hide referrals all the way down there….

    Thanks for the tutorial.

  • Thanks for sharing. This was super helpful.

  • Thanks for the Information. It was helpful

    • markdhansen

      Glad it was helpful 🙂

  • Jack

    Thanks for the info.
    I just want to confirm that the traffic coming from promotional mails (Which we get on our mail id) is Direct traffic or from the other source? If other source what source it that?

    • markdhansen

      Hi Jack,

      Traffic coming from email can show up as coming from a bunch of different sources – sometimes Direct when coming from a mail client like MS Outlook, but could show up as from a web-based email client (e.g., mail.google.com / referral) as well. Your best bet is to always tag the links in your email marketing, so that you can force them to show up as something like “internal / email”. See https://megalytic.com/blog/consistent-tagging-for-better-campaign-tracking.

      — Mark

  • Very clearly written with great information, thank you!

    • markdhansen

      Glad it was useful!

  • Pixel Industry

    Thanks for info, very useful!

    • markdhansen

      You are welcome. Glad it was helpful to you.

  • Hi I have One Question?

    When I Check Google Analytics “Organic Traffic” I show my own website URL Why? How can i fix? Please Suggest me. Thanks

  • Thanks for the overview Mark. I’ve been using branded short urls pretty extensively on a particular site, and now about 30% of its traffic is under direct. The manually created links I can make sure I tag, but I’m going to have to rethink some plugins/services that shorten without tagging. I’m pretty sure that is where most of them are coming from.

    • markdhansen

      Yes, you need to be careful with url shortener services. Some of them strip out the referral headers and your traffic ends up in the Direct bucket if it is not tagged.

  • prrru

    if social networks are https why in Google Analytics it appears as from social: Twitter, Linkedin, etc..? …. It should be direct traffic….

  • Sergi Pijuan

    Hi Mark, I’ve been doing some research on URL shorteners and social traffic from mobile. When you say depending on the URL shortener it might be registered as Direct Traffic, could you give any example of one service that does and another that doesn’t?

  • SergiPH

    Hi Mark, I’ve been doing some research on URL shorteners and social media traffic from mobile. When you say depending on the URL shortener it might be registered as Direct Traffic, could you give any example of one service that does and another that doesn’t?

    • markdhansen

      Some services intentionally hide referers, see: https://referer.us/ Also, when referring to an HTTP page, the HTTPS based shorteners, like https://t.co (Twitter) will cause referers to be dropped. See: http://www.thesempost.com/twitter-moving-t-co-url-shortener-to-https/

      Personally, I’ve had good luck with bit.ly; but I’m sure many others also handle referer headers correctly.’

      • SergiPH

        Thanks for the quick reply. Your article brought a better insight on HTTPS to HTTP traffic and referer’s behaviour. Just FYI, for some testing I’ve made, even a bit.ly-generated URL might cause loss of a social media referer when navigating from a mobile browser. It’s hard to know how many traffic is mobile app based or browser-mobile based, but this can potentially be an issue.

        • markdhansen

          Yes, some mobile browsers are known to strip out referer headers – particularly embedded “in-app” browsers. In such case, there is no link shortener that will work and the only way to get referral information transmitted to Google Analytics is to use tagging: https://megalytic.com/blog/consistent-tagging-for-better-campaign-tracking

          • SergiPH

            Indeed, tag or die… Thanks again!

  • Rodrigo Ortiz Moreno

    HI Mark, excellent post, although i have a particular case, when the user is redirected from checkfront that traffic count as a direct session, now, thanks to your post i understand it is a https to http issue, but this is giving me problems with the attribution model. Is there a wat to tag the urls with utms to solve this issue?

  • Thanks for updating us with such a wonderful piece of information, we were wondering how the direct traffic comes and increasing day to day now we got our answer, thanks again it was really helpful keep it up!

    • markdhansen

      Glad to know that this was useful 🙂

  • Anastasia

    Thanks for this – really lucid explanation of a complex topic! I especially appreciated the breakdown of how to utilize Direct URL creation for this.

    • markdhansen

      Glad that it was helpful to you!

  • angela andrea

    Great Write-Up!…

  • Jacyk13

    Very helpful post! Is there anything that can be done after the fact to track the data if you did not set up the unique URL and the email has already been sent?

    • markdhansen

      Not much can be done on the Google Analytics side after-the-fact. Does your email platform track opens and/or clicks? If so, the clicks measured should give you an idea of the number of visitors from that campaign.

      • Jacyk13

        Yes, I do have the stats on opens and clicks, just not conversions. Any other outside ways to track that?

        • markdhansen

          Is there a unique “Thank You” page? Or some unique page that user gets sent to when he converts? You can look at the pageviews for that page in GA to determine the number of conversions.

  • Tech Guy

    interesting. I have been wondering where direct traffic is coming from.

    • markdhansen

      Glad this post was interesting to you. It can be a real mystery figuring out where the direct traffic originates!

  • Thanks for explaining. This really helped!

    http://the-wardrobe-stylist.com/2016/09/18/diy-floral-crown/

  • Very interesting! Does traffic from a link on a http site to my site (https) also appears as direct?

  • Rob Young

    Great article, thanks for taking the time to spell it out clearly. I wonder if you could help with a question?

    My site is now https, but hasn’t always been. It’s set up now to force anyone who goes to http onto https. If I had a historic link to http://mysite.com from an https site, I assume that will loose referrer data, even though it actually ends up at a https site now?

    Thanks in advance if you can help!

    • markdhansen

      Rob, good question! You will lose the referrer data because browser will not include referrer header in the HTTP request when going from an HTTPS page to another page specified with an HTTP link.

      • Rob Young

        Thanks Mark. As I thought. It’s kind of frustrating isn’t it! not much to go on to track down the sources.

  • thomas

    Hello, I have a question.

    I run a tech blog call Gizmodaily (http://www.gizmodaily.net) I was getting about 150-200 page views daily. (blog age 3 months).

    But recently I’m getting lots of direct pageview on the home page. (not on posts). I checked the referrals in analytics, there is nothing. Now my pageview increased to daily 600+ with 400+ direct homepage view.

    I don’t know what is going on, I’m getting those direct traffic from US. and most of the time I get continuous 5-6 realtime from US as direct traffic to my homepage.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/47bc07a6e025e2a974e1347c8d1a6e5142bcb8258a71c358c8d5b14dfd1fc602.png

    • megalytic

      Is it all coming from a particular state or city in the US? Also, check if it is coming from a particular network domain. See this little video I made: http://quick.as/yY6LIp7A3

      I once worked on a site that was getting pinged regularly by an IP address in the Amazon.com network in Japan. We didn’t ever figure out why they were pinging the site, but we were able to filter the traffic out of our Analytics reports by creating a filtered view (see: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033162?hl=en).

    • markdhansen

      Is it all coming from a particular state or city in the US? Also, check if it is coming from a particular network domain. See this little video I made: http://quick.as/yY6LIp7A3

      I once worked on a site that was getting pinged regularly by an IP address in the Amazon.com network in Japan. We didn’t ever figure out why they were pinging the site, but we were able to filter the traffic out of our Analytics reports by creating a filtered view (see: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033162?hl=en).

  • Kaye Neylon

    Great post! I have a similar issue with emails from Marketo not being tracked under GA – Acquisition – Channels. Anyone have any ideas?

  • lap

    The main problem for such traffic like from Facebook we can’t protect that and that can lead to adsense ban. Is awful. Direct traffic can harm your adsense,because is not good,only organic traffic is ok.

    • markdhansen

      To minimize the amount of direct traffic, run your site under HTTPS and, as much as possible, tag your links from social media: https://megalytic.com/blog/consistent-tagging-for-better-campaign-tracking

      • lap

        Thanks Mark. I have one very important question. How to block my website url,i mean example one of my website post to be blocked on Facebook?
        Example someone one to put mysite.com/75834543.html on Facebook page.How url must look like in this case to he can’t post url at all on Fb? Thanks

        • markdhansen

          Sorry, I don’t understand your question.

          • lap

            I want to url of my website,user can’t publish on fb.Did i must change url structure or what?

          • markdhansen

            You cannot force other people to tag your links. If people are sharing your content on FB, then those URLs will not be tagged. The only thing you might be able to do is build tagging in to the share buttons on your pages. But if users are manually copy-pasting URLs then they will not be tagged.

  • Jobie Baldwin

    I have a question. I’m setting up an app which will link to other companies websites. I want to join their affiliate programmes but the app will apparently come up as direct traffic. Is there a way for them to capture traffic from my app so I can get paid for referrals?

  • Mark, Thank you for the post. I am getting a lot of traffic under direct/none and that too from USA on my MS SQL Training Gurgaon website. I have read your blog and all other comments here. I couldnt understand all of it. Probably I am new to SEO and Analytics.Unable to make sense from where that is coming. Guess I need to know the meaning of all technical terms in analytics first.

  • informative ….. Afghanbee.com

  • Direct Traffics OOOPS informative

  • Raghwendra

    Hi,

    I have one query. One of my website, Organic traffic suddenly dropped and from the same day Direct Traffic started increasing. I checked the GA code and re-implemented it again.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0ced3f18f5a17602454f9d39ac4c7934944c96491582fe6f6b38fc5175f7a109.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/004935f7a99f054038e3b17ea954857eccabebc1a3190282160b597964d63065.png

    • markdhansen

      It certainly looks like Organic traffic has been reclassified as Direct. Did you introduce any re-directs so that maybe organic traffic is being redirected to another landing page and the URL parameters are getting stripped out?

      I also suggest you look at the landing pages and see if there has been any change in where your traffic is landing. That might provide a clue as to what is going on.

  • Excellent! Another freakin’ FANTASTIC post. Read of course by your number 1 FANtastic person 🙂

  • best analysis and understanding article about google analytics

    thanks …