*This blog was originally published in May of 2019 but was updated in October 2020 with additional info, in the hopes of further demystifying a confusing source of traffic.
Direct traffic is the most misunderstood source in Google Analytics. Most Analytics beginners understand common sources of traffic, such as:
These sources they’re self-explanatory. But Direct traffic is trickier to comprehend, and we’ll dive into why that is in this article.
Isn’t Direct traffic those who type in a website URL directly into their browser or click from a saved bookmark in their browser?
Yes, it can be. In fact, Google’s own help center says that Direct traffic is:
“users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your site”
However, that’s not the entire truth. Thinking that ALL your Direct traffic is just people typing in your url or clicking a bookmarking is the biggest misconception behind this traffic source.
Direct traffic can be better defined as traffic that cannot be attributed to a particular source. In other words, the source is unknown.
Understanding Source/Medium in Google Analytics
Let’s first evaluate where you would see these sources showing in your Google Analytics reports. Look in Acquisition > All Traffic > Source Medium to view this list…
In the screenshot above, the Direct traffic accounts for the 2nd most “users” and “new users” and “sessions” Let’s elaborate on exactly what those terms mean.
“Users” nearly equals the “New Users.” To understand the significance, let me define both, according to Google:
Users who have initiated at least one session during the date range. Learn more about how Analytics calculates the number of users. Users =Unique visitors
New Users: The number of first-time users during the selected date range. Learn more about how Analytics calculates the number of users. New Users = Unique first-time visitors
Sessions: Total number of Sessions within the date range. A session is the period time a user is actively engaged with your website, app, etc. Sessions = Total visits (for more on how sessions are counted, check out this article)
Why does this matter?
If you examine the screenshot above for the “(direct) / (none)” traffic, only 3 Users were attributed to having visited the site previously (2,168 Users vs. 2,165 New Users). All the rest were considered “new visitors.”
If we assume that Direct traffic is from people who already know you (they go directly to the website), then the above data highlights that 99.9% of the unique visits were first-time visits.
I find it statistically unlikely that these first-time visitors had all bookmarked or memorized the website but had never visited the site in the past. That just doesn’t make sense.
So Direct traffic is not entirely made up of people going directly to the website… then what exactly is Direct traffic? Where are these people coming from?
In order to best answer this question, we need to evaluate how Google Analytics recognizes different sources.
When a user’s browser is requesting access to a page on your website it can supply this “Referer” field, which is then accessible to Google Analytics. Google then reads and parses the value of the field, processes it, and then displays it in your Source / Medium report. This field is not mandatory though.
Keep in mind that Google Analytics utilizes a distinct process when evaluating referring sources of traffic. Outside of any manually configured overrides, Google follows this sequence:
AdWords parameters > Campaign overrides > UTM campaign parameters > Referred by a search engine > Referred by another website > Previous campaign within timeout period > Direct
If Google works the aforementioned sequence and cannot classify your visit you are marked as Direct.
Run a test yourself
If you have Google Analytics installed on your website then open an incognito browser window and go to google.com. Then do a search for your website. Assuming your site isn’t invisible to search engines, you’ll see it show up. Click on the link.
Now, go to your Google Analytics and click on Real Time > Traffic Sources. You should see your active session show up and it should say you came from “Google/organic,” right? Actually, because you’re incognito you’ll see “(not provided),” which means you’ll get classified as Direct traffic.
By using incognito mode you’re not giving Google the ability to run its sequence of checks noted above. Therefore, you’re simply dumped into the Direct “bucket.” The same goes for clicking a link from a text message or PDF or instant messenger.
We’ll talk about what you can do proactively to minimize this traffic getting “bucketed” as Direct, but first, let’s evaluate the different types of Direct traffic…
Types of Direct traffic
- A user types in a URL into their browser
- A user clicks on a saved bookmark
- A user clicks on a link in Skype, whatsapp, FB messengers, IM: this is what’s known as “dark social” visits.
- http vs https: if a user clicks any link from a secured site (HTTPS) to a non-secured site (HTTP) no referrer data is passed through, thus this traffic is marked as Direct. All other scenarios, http to http, https to https, and https to http, pass referrer data. Keep in mind that your website should be on HTTPS. Assuming you have an HTTPS website then you’re covered. (If you link out to HTTP websites their Analytics will traffic you’ve referred to them as Direct.)
- A user clicks on a link in a non-web document PDF, DocX, ODF, XLSX or a different type of document.
- A user clicks on a link in a mobile app
- A user clicks through a URL-shortener
- There’s missing or broken tracking code on your website
- User clicks on a link in any desktop software: this is most common with email providers such as Outlook or Thunderbird. This is why it’s so crucial that you use UTM tracking with all email marketing that you do.
Tips for cutting down on (improperly categorized) Direct traffic
- Utilize HTTPS: not just for tracking purposes but because it’ll show as “not secure” in a user’s browser. This is critical for every website to be secured via SSL and showing as https
- Use UTM tracking: this is very important for all marketers who are running ad campaigns, sending emails, and sending text messages
- Take control of your re-directs: run a link check using Google Search Console
- Stay on top of your Analytics trends: watch for big jumps or drops from any one source
Tips for evaluating your Google Analytics Data with Direct traffic
Let’s circle back to the example test above with an alternative case, highlighting two different paths to your website:
- Visitor A searches in Google, using incognito mode (or using an untrackable browser), for “best plastic surgeon in Miami” and they get classified as Direct.
- Visitor B searchers in Google for your exact domain name (without the .com), and they get classified as Google/organic.
In a perfect world, Visitor A would be Google/organic and Visitor B would be Direct, since they already know you. But we don’t live in a perfect world with perfect data.
Therefore, in addition to following best practices for minimizing Direct traffic, you also need to evaluate both Google/organic traffic and Direct traffic together and avoid knee-jerk reactions. For example, just because your organic traffic is down doesn’t mean your SEO is failing. In this example, you’d simply need more data, and you’d need ask questions like:
- Is my Direct traffic also falling or has it risen? By how much?
- Is Direct and Organic traffic collectively rising?
- Which landing pages are seeing increases or decreases in traffic?
Don’t get overly “zoned in” on just Google/organic traffic. Look at ALL organic traffic and look at Direct traffic to spot trends.
One final piece of clarity: Direct (none) vs. Direct (not set)
Not to confuse you any more, but there are two different types of Direct traffic. You might see in your Analytics report Direct/none and Direct/(not set). These are not the same thing.
(none) is unknown and found on any Analytics overview showcasing the source and/or medium driving traffic to your website. There is missing referrer information which can be attributed to any of the ten culprits above. This is the most common type of Direct traffic.
(not set) is typically found in Analytics reports where keyword data is shown. It is most commonly seen when viewing your top Landing Pages or Keywords. However, you may see it pop up in other areas, such as Channel Grouping, Browser, Geo Location, and Reverse Goal Path. Seeing (not set) in most of these areas is benign.
However, if your Google Ads are triggering (not set) then you’ll want to check the configuration of your ads. Double-check that:
- Auto-tagging is on and cost data is applied.
- There is no redirect in the destination URL of your AdWords campaign.
- The GCLID parameter is preserved.
- URLs are properly tagged in case of manual tagging
Struggling with Analytics? We Can Help!
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