If you’ve looked at your acquisition sources in Google Analytics, you’ve probably seen Direct traffic or (direct) / (none) listed towards the top. What does that mean, where are those people coming from? What is Direct traffic in Google Analytics? Is it possible that many people are directly typing in the URL into the browser? While that’s certainly some of it, it is not the only cause of direct traffic. Let’s discuss what direct traffic is and the many different factors that cause it.
Direct Traffic is Traffic from an Unknown Source
When Google Analytics can’t identify where the traffic is coming from, it categorizes it as Direct traffic. Direct traffic is the fallback when the acquisition source is unknown.
Direct traffic is a normal part of website behavior, however, it isn’t terribly useful when reviewing your digital analytics. It makes it hard to make decisions about your data when it isn’t clear where that person came from.
Because of this, Google Analytics uses last non-direct click attribution. What that means, is if someone visits your site from an organic search, then the next day they directly type in your URL, Google Analytics attributes that session to organic search, not direct traffic.
This makes the data more meaningful and easier to understand the value of various acquisition sources. It also means, although direct type in is a potential source of direct traffic, it doesn’t account for as much of the direct traffic as it would if last non-direct click attribution wasn’t used.
By default, Google Analytics has a campaign timeout of 6 months. What that means, is that original organic search would then cause that next URL direct type-in to count as organic traffic for 6 months. You can change the campaign timeout to be anywhere between 1 day to 2 years. You can edit this setting under Admin > Property > Tracking Info > Session Settings.
If your buying cycle is long, you may want to increase this. If it’s short, you may want to decrease this. If you aren’t sure, just leave it at the default. For most people the 6 month default setting will provide accurate data.
Causes of Direct Traffic
Direct Type in or Browser Bookmark
As we’ve already discussed, one of the possible sources of direct traffic is when people type the website URL directly into the browser. The same thing can be accomplished by the user creating a bookmark for the website and clicking the bookmark. This type of traffic would be counted as direct traffic in Google Analytics.
HTTPS to HTTP
HTTPS websites can’t send referrer data to HTTP websites. Instead of referral data, it shows up as direct traffic. This is how HTTPS should work, this is not an error. HTTPS is secure data, whereas HTTP is not. So, HTTPS can not send it’s secure data to HTTP.
What this means is, if you have an HTTP website (not HTTPS), and you get referrals from sites using HTTPS, you won’t be able to see that traffic in Google Analytics. It will be clumped together with your direct traffic. This only happens when HTTPS tries to send to HTTP. HTTP can send referrer information to HTTPS with no issues.
If your website isn’t using HTTPS yet, this is a good time to look into it. It will only become more and more important in the future.
Missing Tracking Code
If one or more of your site pages doesn’t have the Google Analytics tracking code and someone visits it, then clicks a link to another page on your site which does have the tracking code, Google Analytics would attribute this as a self referral from your own website. And by default, your website is listed in the referral exclusion list. If this is the case, then the visit would be attributed to direct traffic instead.
To avoid this, make sure whenever a page gets added to your website it has the tracking code added. Make sure this is part of the default page creation process and you aren’t required to manually add the tracking code.
Just like with redirects, when you create a shortlink or use a URL shortener system such as bitly, you lose your referral data. To compensate, make sure you add UTM tags on the URL you are sending the traffic to. That way, you have a shortlink that is easy to share and remember, but when people use that URL they are redirected to a page that is your full URL plus all of the UTM tags appended to the URL to be able to track where the click came from. To learn exactly how to add those UTM tags, follow our complete UTM tag guide.
Do you have any downloadable freebies on your website? These are things such as PDFs or Microsoft Word files that people download in exchange for an email address. If those documents have any links in them, clicks from those links will show up as direct traffic. Since those documents are not part of your website, they are local assets downloaded onto people’s computers, Google Analytics can’t attribute those links to the appropriate source. That can be fixed by adding UTM parameters to those links, just like we discussed for shortlinks.
When you add UTM parameters you’re able to specify the source, medium, and campaign. That way, you can track that information under your Google Analytics acquisition sources, instead of clumping it all under direct traffic. To learn exactly how to add those UTM tags, follow our complete UTM tag guide.
Another common source of direct traffic is from email campaigns. When someone clicks a link an email you sent them, it counts as direct traffic. Google Analytics can’t by default identify that the click came from an email campaign.
Just like with the shortlinks and offline documents, this can be fixed by adding UTM tags to specify the campaign attributes. Most email providers even have an option to enable UTM tracking so each link automatically appends the UTM parameters needed to track the campaign data in Google Analytics. If this is an option with your email provider, I would enable it so you can get all the data without the headache of creating a UTM tag for every single link.
And lastly, is what is referred to as dark social. Several forms of social traffic end up being counted as direct traffic. It’s very hard to attribute these visits properly, and instead, you should just be aware that this is likely accounting for a big chunk of your direct traffic (provided you’ve addressed any possible issues outlined above).
Now, this doesn’t apply to links that you post on your social media accounts. Or links other people post on their public facing social media accounts. For the most part, Google Analytics is able to associate those links properly as social referrals. They can identify the URL the link is coming from and that it is a referral, and can also identify that the referral type is a social network.
Where this applies is with the authentic social sharing from brand advocates to their friends and family. This is a great problem to have, people are sharing your brand. But, you can’t easily tell all those people to use UTM tags to track the data.
If someone shares a link to your website in an email, text message, facebook messenger, or slack message it’s going to count as a direct link. This is essentially a digital word of mouth channel. Word of mouth has always been difficult to track, this is just the digital version.
Direct traffic is a normal part of your digital analytics. If more than about 25% of your traffic is from direct traffic, then start looking into the potential problems outlined above. Is your site HTTPS, are pages missing tracking code, is traffic being redirected? Create a plan to leverage UTM tags on external traffic sources.
If your direct traffic is equal to or less than about 25% of your website traffic, this is pretty common. So, make sure you understand what it means, these aren’t just a total number of people typing your URL directly into the browser.
Either way, it’s a good idea to review the direct traffic causes outlined above and make sure your direct traffic number is not being overly inflated by poor tracking.
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