Google Analytics: What Does Direct Traffic Really Means

Thursday, 23 September 2010

When it comes to classify the incoming traffic to a website, Google Analytics currently uses 4 default categories:

Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

The search engines and referring sites are rather self-explanatory, however the direct traffic and others categories can be somehow confusing. In today's post will be focusing solely on Direct Traffic.

What is Direct Traffic

According to Google, incoming traffic is classified as Direct Traffic when someone:

- Typed your URL directly in their web browser and reach your website.
- Bookmarked your website and clicked on a bookmark to reach your website.

Google's definition is exact, but is rather simplified. Such short cut has contributed to a common misconception of direct traffic visits leading to misleading interpretations of analytics data. In many cases, Direct traffic is much more than just bookmarked and URL-typed visits.

Google Analytics classify traffic as Direct when a user session has been started without a referrer being passed by the user browser. All this means that a direct visit is not ONLY a bookmarked or URL-tpyed visit.

What Does Google Analytics Classifies as Direct Traffic

Based on the complete definition, the Direct Traffic bucket is often filled with a large array of visitors.

In reality direct traffic includes:

- URL-typed visits

- Visits from Bookmarks

- Visits coming from an email signature. If someone clicks on a website link in a email signature in Outlook, no referrer will be passed to the user browser and this visit will be attributed to direct.

- Visits coming from an untagged email campaign. When someone clicks on an untagged link (link which does not include a Google Analytics tag) from in their email client (Outlook, Lotus Notes or Thunderbird), no referrer will be passed and the visit will be classified as direct. This is actually one of the most common cause of spikes in direct traffic. It is therefore very important to correctly tag email campaigns.
Note: This only applies to email clients. If someone clicks on a link from a Webmail (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo), the visit will be classified in Referring traffic.

- Visits from Shortened URLs in Facebook, Twitter or Social Media. The shortened URLs do not pass referrers, so all your traffic coming from your shortened Twitter updates will be classified as Direct. To ensure it is classified in the right bucket, make sure you tag your URLs.

- Visits coming from a Document (Word, Excel)

- Visits from a user in a secured environment or intranet, where the Firewall or Proxy strips the referrer leading to the referrer not being passed.

- Visits from Mobile Ads. As outlined by Avinash Kaushik, untagged mobile ads link will be classified as Direct.

- Visits from a Page of your website missing the Google Analytics tag. If someone clicks on a link from a page of your website,which does not have the Google Analytics tracking code, the visit will be reported as direct. It is therefore quite important to ensure that GA tracking code is added any new page you might create.

- Visits coming from a link on a HTTPS page pointing to a HTTP page or on a HTTP page pointing to a HTTPS page. For security reason, the referrer is not passed on this type of links and therefore the visit will be categorised as direct. A quick fix is to ensure that your URL are tagged correctly.

- Visit from someone, who has modified its browser configuration to avoid passing the referrer ( not so common).

- Visits from links encoded in Javascript. For some browsers (IE), links encoded in Javascript will not pass the referrer and therefore be classified as direct traffic. Some display networks use this type of links, so it is advised to always use tagged URLs to avoid bad surprises.

- Visits from unproperly coded Redirects. 301 Permanent Redirects usually pass the referrer information so your traffic will be classified correctly, however in some cases, 302 Temporary redirects can lead to visits being classified as direct traffic.

Note: Quite logically, untagged paid search campaigns usually do not end up in Direct traffic but in the search engine bucket. it is however important to tag paid search campaign correctly

Obviously there are a few more cases, when Google classifies traffic as direct, but this list should outline the most common cases.

As you can see, Direct Traffic is much more than just people typing your URL or bookmark generated visits. Keeping this in mind can be really useful when it comes to analyse your data and understand the different trends in direct traffic.
In most case a spike in Direct Traffic is the result of an incorrect implementation of URL tagging (email campaign), so to keep a 'clean' direct traffic is is extremley important to tag your URL correctly