The Mystery of Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Don’t you love it when you are working for a well-known brand? A brand that people search for all the time. A brand with a popular website that people typed in the address directly on their browsers. OK I’m not sure where I’m going with this (I’m bad with intro). Just straight to the point:

One of our clients raised an analytics question the other week. Their direct traffic (with medium = none) seems to have increased by over 60% year-on-year. Great news! The brand and website are more popular than ever, having visitors bookmarked the site or typed in the URL directly on their browsers. But is this really the case? In Analytics, if you think the data is too good to be true, then you are probably right. After all, you know about your website and your brand better.

Google: We don't know where the visit is coming from

Google: We don’t know where the visit is coming from


Unfortunately, direct traffic (or medium = none) is also Google’s way to say “we don’t know where this traffic comes from” – as paraphrased from conversioneering.com blog. In theory, direct traffic means:

  • Visitors typed in the URL directly on their browsers
  • Visitors are visiting via bookmark
  • Visitors set the website as the start page when their browser first open (this happens quite often for internal employees in the business – unless the IP address is blocked on GA)

Other Traffic Sources Possibly Tracked as Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

URL shorteners

I’ve seen some discussions out there that outline the discrepancies between URL shorteners’ report  (such as Bit.ly) and Google Analytics. On this forum for example, a user sees 16K hits on Bit.ly, but only 33 in GA (massive difference there). And unfortunately these referral traffic using URL shorteners can be tracked as direct traffic or referral from the URL shortener (instead of the website or social media network where the actual source or link is).

Untagged Emails

We also suspect that one of the (possibly large) traffic sources for our client that was registered as direct traffic was actually coming from their welcome email when a user register to become a member of their community. This email provides links to various sections of the website and were not tagged.

Clicks on (untagged) links within Outlook and other desktop email clients show up as Direct. That’s always been the case. But what’s become more common is for web-based email clients (Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) to use secure browsing (https). Consider your referrer lost – “Direct” visits strike again, more wolves.

Source: LunaMetrics

PDF Document

Visitors clicking on links from PDF documents.

Missing Analytics Tag

A visitor landed on your website from a source (say organic or paid). The landing page does not have an analytics tag. This visit will not be tracked, but if the visitor clicks through to another page which has an analytics tag, it will be registered as direct traffic.

Mobile Apps

Such as Twitter client (e.g. Tweetdeck).

Mobile OS

The guys over at Distilled found that some search visits from several mobile operating systems are registered as direct traffic:

… recently there has been an issue with some mobile referrer data. The iOS6 (iPhone/iPod operating system) uses Google’s encrypted search by default and due to the way Google delivers its mobile SERPs this search traffic is recorded as direct traffic. Android 4 is also losing some referrer data.

Source: Distilled

Redirects

Slightly off topic from “Direct Traffic” – Let’s say you run a multiple sub-domain website where each sub-domain uses a different GA tag (this happens quite often at large corporations where many stake holders are involved; and consolidating analytics account can mean several-month project). When a user visits the site using a mobile, he / she gets redirected to “m” sub-domain. Whichever the source of the visit (e.g. organic, paid, display), the “m” analytics account tracks this visit as referral from the main “www” sub-domain (self-referral).

Right Click > Open a New Tab

Now this is a bit of a shock, when a user right-clicks a link then open in a new window or tab, referrer data is lost. BOOM!

Lastly, webkit-based browsers (Chrome and Safari among them) have a known problem with opening content in new tabs and windows. If a user right-clicks a link and selects Open in a New Window or Open in a New Tab, referrer data is LOST! MIND BLOWN! But if they simply hold CTRL or command (on a mac) while they click to launch in a new tab, referrer data is preserved. DOUBLE BLOWN!

Read more.

Incorrect Google Website Optimizer Code

Using an incorrect Google Website Optimizer (GWO) code apparently can result in traffic being registered as direct. As seen on this post where the GA code is using sub-domain tracking, while the GWO code were not optimised for sub-domain tracking.

What to Do?

Pretty simple really, make sure that all our campaigns are tagged correctly. Easier to be said than done, but keep in mind that before we start any campaign or spend hours and hours of our effort promoting our website or brand, we should be able to track the success of these activities and even better, get the credit (wink). I’m sure we are all in the same page – whether you work at a digital agency or at a marketing department (client-side).

Bottom line, we should not trust only one source of data. In fact, we should not trust anything at all and really need to question if our data is accurate.

Have you tagged all your campaigns? Do you see any other possibilities or have you evidently seen other sources of visits that are tracked as direct traffic in Google Analytics? Feel free to share your thoughts and help others.

About Andryo Haripradono

Andryo is a digital marketer focusing in search and analytics with web design and front-end development background. He started his digital career in the UK and the European markets before relocating to Sydney and work for the Australian, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific markets. Outside work hours, he blogs, sings and writes songs, travels the world and takes a lot of photos. Connect with Andryo on Twitter, Google+ or Linkedin.