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

Laura Caveney
13th October 2021

Struggling with direct traffic in Google Analytics? We share what direct traffic means and how to get an accurate view of how website visitors are finding and engaging with your business.

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!

🌟 Pro Tip
Did you know you’re missing a lot of data from your GA account? Here’s how to unlock more from your data.

How to unlock revenue in your Google Analytics account

What is direct traffic in Google Analytics?

Direct traffic in Google Analytics is defined as website visits that occurred as a result of a user typing your URL directly into their browser or through bookmarks. 

If Google Analytics can’t track the source of your traffic then it will categorise this as direct traffic. This could include a link in an offline document like a pdf or Word document. 

We’ll discuss what exactly causes direct traffic in Google Analytics in the next section. 

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.

Related: Limitations of Google Analytics and how to overcome them

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.

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.

You can view direct traffic by heading to your acquisition report and selecting, ‘All traffic’ and ‘channels’.

What is direct traffic in Google Analytics

Why is your direct traffic so high?

The reason why direct traffic is so high is that it’s Google’s catch-all. If a session can’t be attributed, then Google Analytics will add it to direct.

So, anytime you’re tracking isn’t set up correctly, you’ll likely see significantly higher direct traffic.

But, this isn’t the only reason why it’s so high. In fact, there are a few key reasons why Google will credit traffic as being ‘direct’.

What causes direct traffic?

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

Well, we already talked about how it’s for direct searches. But, there are a few ways your sessions might be getting categorised as ‘direct’ despite having another referrer.

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 directly into 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.

🌟 Pro Tip
Track the full customer journey of your leads and customers to better capture how the direct searches are coming about. With a marketing attribution tool, you can see every touchpoint your user has with your business.

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.

HTTP – HTTPS 

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.

Social media sites don’t pass referral data to Google Analytics 

Ever noticed traffic in Facebook that is listed as direct (or other) in Google Analytics? There’s a simple reason for that. 

When Facebook isn’t sending referral data across to analytics, it means that GA is unable to locate its source. So, you guessed, it reverts to default.

🚀 Pro Tip
This isn’t the only time you’ll spot a discrepancy between Facebook and Google Analytics. Download our eBook to see how you can minimise the data disconnect.

How to reduce direct traffic in Google Analytics

There are four easy ways you can reduce direct traffic in Google Analytics. 

  1. Use an attribution tool to track your customer journeys in full and attribute the correct source 
  2. Migrate to HTTPs
  3. Use UTM tags and parameters 
  4. Avoid using vanity URLs

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

Here’s how you can reduce direct traffic allocation in Google Analytics:

Using an attribution tool

While there are some technical fixes to reducing your direct traffic, marketing attribution is the best option when it comes to getting a complete fix. 

When users are typing your URL directly into their search bar, you’re always going to see direct traffic as part of your acquisition report. 

👉 Book a demo to see the data in action and how you can link full customer journeys to your leads and sales.

So, why not just understand the steps users who do this took, before searching you directly? 

With tools like Ruler, you can see how channels influenced that direct search and understand the full customer journey. 

Related: Everything you can see in Ruler Analytics

Attribution tools like ours will track every new lead and every touchpoint they have in their journey from the awareness stage to the decision stage. 

🚀 Pro Tip
Discover how you can track the full customer journey using Ruler Analytics and see how much easier attributing sales to your marketing can be. 

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.

Here’s a good guide you can follow.

Use 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.

Redirect your 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.

Redirect your vanity URLs to a page with all the appropriate tags and you’ll be able to guarantee that Google Analytics will accurately track those sessions.

🌟 Pro Tip
There are even more benefits to integrating Google Analytics and Ruler Analytics. Read what data you can get into your analytics

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.

Related: How Ruler attributes marketing to your revenue

Find out more about marketing attribution by downloading our eBook on why you need 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.

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