June 2nd 2020

What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?

Direct traffic is considered to be any traffic that has directly accessed your website, rather than searching for it or being referred by another site. The most common ways a user can directly access a website is by typing the URL into their browser, or by clicking on a bookmark. Google Analytics may also group other traffic under the Direct Channel group that it cannot determine the source of.  There are two ways of analyzing the traffic sources and these are either by Source/Medium or Channel Grouping .

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

Therefore, any traffic which doesn’t have a set or defined traffic source will end up into our Google Analytics account as direct traffic, which is far from ideal when we rely so heavily on our data accuracy. So, let’s dive in and see what can cause increased direct traffic.

The Causes of Direct Traffic in Google Analytics.

a.) 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). Also, at the GA View level, we have a designated field – Exclude all hits from known bots and spiders – which should be ticked off when we create a new view.

b.) ‘Type-in’/Bookmark traffic – Direct traffic can come from the user 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 and fewer instances of ‘type-in’ traffic due to the way we consume content and the increased use of social media and messenger platforms. In most cases, there are likely to be other explanations for our inflated direct traffic.

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; causeing a sudden increase direct traffic

d.) Redirect issues – The best practice for a redirect instruction is to use a 3xx status where we guide our user from an old page to our brand new one. However, sometimes this is not possible and Javascript/Meta redirects are used, which are not ideal and in most cases this will influence our 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 an untagged link from a document (e.g. PDF) – 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 these don’t send referral information, 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, etc. 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 definitely worth mentioning. For example, we’ve could have just created a new page but our CMS is using a different template from the default one so it therefore ends up not including the hardcoded GA or GTM code. So, a user hit wouldn’t fire our GA code because there’s nothing to be triggered, but after visiting our brand new page, our 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.

Conclusion

Direct traffic can have multiple sources and if we see an increase in our numbers it means that we need to investigate the data and we should start immediately by reviewing our tagging process. If you look into each of the causes mentioned above, you’ll be sure to find the route of the issue and on your way to solving an increase in direct traffic in no time.