What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics + How to Get an Accurate Channel Source

Laura Caveney
22nd March 2021

Find yourself reporting on high levels of direct traffic from Google Analytics month on month? It’s a common problem for marketers. We share what direct traffic means and how to better understand how web visitors are finding you.


Google Analytics is an essential tool for marketers looking to understand how well their content and campaigns are working to drive traffic and engagement on their site.

In this blog we’re going to discuss:

Let’s get started!


What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics?

If you’ve used Google Analytics for a while, you’ll know there’s a handy report under acquisition that allows you to break down your website traffic by source and channel.

Channels include:


These channel reports allow you to see which channels are responsible for driving the most traffic. And, with the right tools and tracking, you can even see which channels are driving more actions on your site; from phone calls to form submissions and live chat.

But what is ‘direct traffic’ on Google Analytics?

In short, Google Analytics will attribute a traffic source to ‘direct’ when it doesn’t have any data on how that user landed on your site. Direct is basically Google’s fallback channel for when it fails to properly attribute a visitor.

Remember, Google will try and minimise direct traffic in its reports for you automatically. If a user visits your site via an organic search and returns via a direct search a week later, both sessions will be attributed to organic search. But, this is only for a particular lookback period, as set by Google.



Why is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics so High?

Google Analytics uses direct traffic as it’s catch-all. If it can’t attribute it, it goes in direct. That’s why it’s so high. Plus, users are getting savvier!

Customer journeys are getting longer and so users get more exposure to your brand as they engage with your via numerous sources. If they’ve engaged with your website a few times, chances are they’ll just type your website directly into their search bar.

Remember, search bars tend to autofill URLs for you, which can often be a quicker job than searching for a company via a search engine.


What Causes Direct Traffic?

Now that we better understand what direct traffic actually is, what causes it?

We know that it’s Google’s catch-all way to categorise every session. But, there are key reasons why your sessions might be getting categorised as ‘direct’ when they have another referrer.

Here are the key reasons why your traffic is being categorised as a direct search.


Manual address entry and bookmarks 

This is the classic reason for direct traffic. And as far as Google Analytics is concerned, there’s no way around it.

Generally, users, once familiar with your business, will write your URL direct to their search bar. Remember, if they’ve visited your site before, chances are their device has remembered the URL making it a quicker route than writing it in a search engine.


P.S. If you’re using an attribution tool, you’ll be able to capture every website engagement a user has, meaning you can see how channels influence a direct search.


Missing or broken tracking code 

If you’re developing your site or creating new templates, you need to be careful that any new pages include Google Analytics code.

Without it, GA can’t track where a user has come from. And so, if a user lands on this page and then moves to a second page, that does have the code, Google Analytics has no choice but to attribute it as a direct search.


Non-web documents 

Links embedded in docs created with Word, Google or Acrobat will not pass on referrer information. And so, by default, any user who visits via this link will be categorised as direct.

To a degree, this is inevitable and will account for a small quantity of your direct traffic. But, where possible, use tagged links (we’ll get onto that later) by adding UTM parameters. It allows Google to still scrape referral data even if it’s coming from a non-trackable source.



If a user follows a link on a secure page (HTTPS) that leads to a non-secure page (HTTP), no referrer data is passed on. So, all sessions of this type are listed as direct traffic instead of as a referral.

This is part of how the secure protocol was designed and so cannot be avoided. If you find your referral traffic has dropped but your direct has increased, it could be that a major referrer has migrated to HTTPS.

By now, the majority of sites have migrated to HTTPS, so again this is unlikely to be a huge contributor.


Dark social

Dark social basically refers to social shares that can’t be properly attributed. It could be links shared in Facebook messenger, over WhatsApp, via email or Skype for example.

According to a recent study, upwards of 80% of link sharing is now done via these channels, making attribution even more difficult for marketers.

You can basically think of dark social as word of mouth marketing taken online; elusive but highly rewarding.



How to Minimise Direct Traffic Allocation

Now we know where direct traffic comes from, it’s only right we look at how we can minimise it in Google Analytics.

After all, the less direct traffic you have, the more accurate your channel attribution is.

Here are four easy ways to reduce direct traffic allocation in Google Analytics:


Marketing Attribution 

While there are other ways to minimise direct traffic allocation, marketing attribution is a better option as you can view direct traffic as part of a full journey.

The other solutions will help to reduce direct traffic in Google Analytics. But one thing you can’t change is users who directly search your site in their search bar.

The only solution to this is marketing attribution.

With tools like Ruler, you can see how channels influenced that direct search and understand the full customer journey. Ruler Analytics is a marketing attribution solution that collects data about your visitors and automatically sends lead generation activity to your CRM and Google Analytics reporting suite.


Migrate to HTTPS

If you want to decrease direct traffic, then a good solution for that (and for general site security) is to migrate to HTTPS.


UTM Tags and Parameters 

Tagging your URLs should be standard practice as a marketer. Campaign tracking, also known as “UTM tracking codes” simply allows you to add special tracking code to your URL. It helps to identify how users are getting to your site and ultimately, how your campaigns are performing.

We wrote a quick guide to tracking links with UTM tags.


Avoid Vanity URLs

Managing your redirections is key to good site structure and user experience. It also helps with tracking.

When using plain vanity URLs with no UTM tags, remember you’re going to get quite limited referral data.



Wrapping Up

While direct traffic in Google Analytics can be a nuisance, hopefully, these steps will help you minimise your direct referrals. And remember, with an attribution tool you can completely omit the reliance on direct traffic completely.

You’ll be able to see full customer journeys and attribute your closed revenue on your own terms.

Find out more about marketing attribution by downloading our free eBook on Ruler and see what it can do for you. Or, if you’re already sold, book a demo with our team to see our data in action.


Book a demo Ruler Analytics