May 30th 2022

What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?

Google defines Direct Traffic as “a session is processed as direct traffic when no information about the referral source is available, or when the referring source or search term has been configured to be ignored.” This is true for both Google Analytics and the new GA4; learn more about GA4 sources and exclusions here.

a. Manually typing URL/Bookmark traffic – Direct traffic can come from the user directly typing the URL into their browser, or from their saved bookmarks because they have no affiliated source attributed to them. However, these days, there are fewer instances of manual URL typing traffic due to the way we consume content and the increased use of social media and messenger platforms. 

b. Bot traffic – This example is one of most common sources of direct traffic for many sites. The easiest way to identify any sessions coming from bot or non-human activity is to look at bounce rate (in most cases it is 100%) and the average session duration (less then 3 seconds). At the Google Analytics View level, there is a designated field – ‘Exclude all hits from known bots and spiders’ this should be ticked off when creating a new view to avoid bot traffic being measured.

c. Clicked on a link from a HTTPS to HTTP page – HTTPS is a standard in today’s landscape however, this wasn’t the case several years ago when the majority of sites were using the HTTP protocol. When Google established the new standards of web security, naturally everyone started migrating to HTTPS. Google Analytics translates this as getting more direct traffic. The reason being, that when HTTPS refers a session to HTTP with no referring data logs, GA tracks that session as direct traffic.

Let’s see some scenarios for the different protocols:

  • HTTPS refers a session to HTTPs, referral data gets logged;
  • HTTP to HTTP – data logs;
  • HTTPS to HTTPS – data logs;
  • HTTP to HTTPS – data logs;
  • HTTPS refers to a HTTP page – NO data is logged; causing a sudden increase direct traffic

d. Redirect issues – If a URL is not redirected correctly Google cannot identify where the original traffic source came from. The best practice for a redirect instruction is to use a 3xx status where we guide the user from an old page to the new, correct page. However, sometimes this is not possible and Javascript/Meta redirects are used. This is not ideal and in most cases will influence the direct traffic recorded in Google Analytics.

Additionally, we are sometimes also forced to use a “server-side” redirect instruction. This type of redirect can also result in increases in direct traffic; this is often a result of UTM parameters getting lost in the process. A solution might be manually adding UTM parameters, for example: https://example1.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utom_campaign=redirect (server-side redirects to) https://example2.com.

e. Click on a non-web document – This includes PDFs and Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint…This is similar to the server-side redirect scenario. Using UTM parameters to tag any traffic coming from your documents embedded links will resolve this.

f. Mobile apps – The majority of mobile apps do not typically send referral information, and therefore there is no solution to tag this traffic.

g. Shortened URLs – With the popularity of social media, more and more businesses are using shortened URLs in their profile descriptions to point to their products and website. In most cases, when a short URL is used (Bitly is a service which offers shortened URLs) a redirect process is employed. Using UTM parameters in the destination URL should be a must if we want to track our traffic properly.

h. The GA code is missing – Sometimes, our Google Analytics/Google Tag Manager snipped is missing from some page templates – this isn’t as common, but worth mentioning. For example, if we have created a new page but the CMS is using a different template from the default one, it ends up not including the hardcoded GA or GTM code. So, a user hit wouldn’t fire on the GA code because there’s nothing to be triggered. But, if after visiting the new page, the user decides to navigate to a different page, which has a GA snippet on it; at this point, we have no referring logs therefore the latest sessions will be grouped as direct traffic.

Why is Direct Traffic High?

Direct traffic can have multiple sources and if we see a significant increase in the data it needs to be investigated. You should start by reviewing the tagging process and ensure the tracking is set up correctly.

Analyse each of the above points of the possible causes for direct traffic should lead you finding the route of the issue and you’ll be on your way to solving an increase in direct traffic in no time.

How to Analyse Direct Traffic

While there are many reasons for direct traffic, it is important to monitor your average direct traffic monthly to identify any spikes and increases. Familiarise yourself with GA and GA4 and where you can monitor direct traffic.

In Universal Google Analytics

Source/Medium View

If you look at your Google Analytics reports filtered by Source/Medium you will see something similar to the following screenshot:

SourceMedium View for Channel Grouping

Technically, GA refers to direct traffic as (direct)/(none). However, if the medium is undefined or (not set), that traffic will be attributed to the Direct Channel by default.

Default Channel View

Google provides a really useful document that describes how the default channel definitions are established. Looking at these definitions, we can see that the Direct Channel description has “Medium exactly matches (not set) or (none)” into it.

Default View for Channel Grouping

In GA4

With Google’s new interface, GA4 direct traffic can be found under Reports – Acquisition in both User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition, depending on the information you are seeking.

GA4 Acquisition Overview

GA4 User Acquisition

 

Conclusion

Direct traffic will always remain a data source as part of the traffic is likely loyal visitors returning to your site. Direct traffic is not something to be concerned about; however, it is important to maintain a steady level of direct traffic and any large increases may be a result of an incorrect tracking.

If you require further help understanding or setting up Google Analytics, please feel free to contact us.

This article was authored by former Erudite team Member Andrei Hanganu