Direct traffic in Google Analytics is one of the first big mysteries you discover. What does it mean? Why does it perform so well? Who are these people?

What is this?

Every other traffic source seems so self-explanatory: Google, Pinterest, organic (search), email… But (direct) / (none). Direct. None. What do these even mean?

No seriously. What IS this? What does it mean and why is there so much of it?

In this guide, you’ll get a thorough but easy to understand introduction to the mystery of Direct Traffic. You’ll learn:

  1. Why “Direct” is fundamentally different from all your other traffic sources
  2. What kind of visits it actually includes
  3. How to keep it “clean”
  4. How to analyze it.

Why is Direct traffic different?

“Direct” isn’t real

In Google Analytics, “Direct” is not a place you get traffic from. It’s only a reporting category.

“Direct” means that Google Analytics does not know where the visit came from.

It’s a fallback. A catch-all. A black hole for traffic sources. When Google Analytics doesn’t know where else to put the visit, it puts it in (direct) / (none).

What does this mean for me and my reports?

This means that you can’t take action from your Direct traffic the same way that you can with other sources and channels. If you see that your Organic Search traffic is really engaged or you’re making sales out of referrals from a specific blog, you can simply try to get more visits from these sources.

On the other hand, if you see that your Direct traffic is performing well (or poorly), you can’t tell what marketing activities to ramp up or slow down. (At least not without careful analysis.) Google Analytics can’t tell you where those visits actually came from.

Why can’t Google Analytics tell where every visit comes from?

Quick concept: How browsers and web pages talk to each other

When you open any web page, your browser sends a message to the server where the website lives. It includes some information about your browser and what web page it wants to see. In response, the server sends back the page and you see it load in your browser.

If you follow a link to open the web page, your browser includes a special line in the message: referrer

The referrer is the address of the page where you clicked the link. For example, when you open a Google search result, the referrer is “https://www.google.com/“.

This referrer value is one of the main ways that Google Analytics tells where a visit to your website came from.

The Google Analytics 5-step traffic sorter

When Google Analytics tries to figure out the source of a new visit, it goes through a few standard steps. As soon as a step finds a source, the sorting stops.

  1. Google Ads: Does the URL have a Google Ads campaign ID or something similar? If it does, the visit counts as google / cpc or google / display, and the sorting stops.
  2. Campaign details in the code: It’s possible to override the traffic source in the code you use to run Google Analytics. If this happens, GA will use these details and stop sorting.
  3. Campaign Tags: These are the utm_source etc. tags you use on special promo links, so you can control the traffic source details yourself. If GA finds these, it uses the tag values.
  4. Referrer: Finally — if Google Analytics hasn’t found any of the options in the first 3 steps — it checks the referrer that your browser sent in its message to load the page.
  5. Previous campaign from this visitor: But if that referrer is empty, Google Analytics tries a last-ditch effort to give you something useful! It checks the last time this visitor came to your site and via a traffic source that was NOT “Direct”. If it finds one, it uses those campaign details again.

If NONE of these steps returns a traffic source, only then does the visit get sent to (direct) / (none).

What counts as Direct traffic?

People often describe Direct traffic as coming from visitors typing your address in manually or using a bookmark. In these cases, the term “Direct” makes sense.

When I hit “Enter”, I’ll be visiting this site directly.

But for many websites – especially small ones – this does not make up the bulk of their Direct traffic! There are lots of other ways that the traffic source can be hidden or lost.

Other traffic sources that can end up as “Direct”

As we saw in the 5-step traffic sorting process, Google Analytics often relies on the referrer that your browser sends when it loads a web page, to know where you came from. But there are a number of reasons this information can be empty, forgotten or ignored along the way!

Messenger apps & email programs

This happens when someone clicks on a link to your shop inside an app, whether WhatsApp on their phone or Outlook on their desktop computer. These programs are separate from their web browser, so the browser doesn’t have the information it needs to fill out the referrer. It’s just left blank, and the traffic counts as Direct.

It’s important to note that social media apps, like the Facebook and Instagram apps, get around this problem by replacing links with a special “in between” page. (You might have seen this sometimes when your internet is slow.) This page exists just to tell the next page (the actual shared link) that the visit is coming from Facebook or Instagram.

Documents & files

Links in documents like PDFs, PowerPoints and Word files do not give your browser a referrer either. Even if you opened the document using your web browser, like a PDF.

Missing Campaign Tags

If you tag your promotional links with UTM Campaign Tags, there are two mandatory tags: utm_source and utm_medium. When Google Analytics finds either one, it stops looking for a referrer and uses the Campaign Tags instead.

But… if one of these mandatory tags is missing, Google Analytics won’t use the Campaign Tag details either! Sending your traffic straight to Direct, even if there WAS referrer data available.

Safari (including iPhone) users

You may have noticed Apple’s push towards user privacy, so it’s not surprising that Google Analytics has had trouble on Safari in recent years. The big feature is called Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which affects the cookies that Google Analytics uses to work.

Simply put: it’s easier for GA to forget users who use Safari, which means it can’t find a previous campaign in step 5 of the traffic-sorting process.

WordPress sites

Since 2017, the WordPress platform has automatically added a special tag to external links that are configured to open in a new tab / window: rel="noopener noreferrer". This tag helps close a little security loophole when browsers open new tabs, but take a closer look at it: noreferrer. No Referrer.

Yeah, that tag tells your browser not to send the referrer in its message to the next page.

WordPress runs about 35% of all websites, so it’s a bit scary that they could be sending you incorrect Direct traffic! This could be affecting links from guest blogs, paid reviews, even affiliate links.

Secure websites (if yours is insecure)

Since you’re running an online shop, your website should already be secure (using HTTPS). If, for whatever reason, you have some pages loading with HTTP, then links to these pages from another secure website (including Google, social networks etc) will count as Direct!

Part of the security protocols of HTTPS, is that a secure website doesn’t share information with an insecure one. That includes the referrer message in your browser.

Browser miscommunication

This is a bit of a catch-all for the other technical reasons that the referrer can get lost. These can include:

  • Other mobile apps (including search, sometimes!)
  • Missing Google Analytics code on some of your pages (rare)
  • Privacy settings, add-ons and extensions that block referrer information
  • Some kinds of redirects
  • Other sites that use “noreferrer” links, apart from WordPress sites
  • Misconfigured cross-domain tracking

As you can see, your Direct traffic can come from a bunch of different sources and for a variety of reasons! That’s why you can’t just analyse it as one single group.

How to clean up your Direct traffic

There are a few steps you can take to move some of your Direct traffic back into a specific traffic source. This will help “clean up” any Direct visits that can be avoided. (The rest, we’ll segment and analyze.)

Our goal here is to minimize any technical reasons for Direct traffic and make sure it doesn’t include any of your own promotions. Once we take care of these two, Direct is effectively an “organic” channel: it’s personal links, sharing among friends, and some organic search.

1. Use Campaign Tags on everything

Your goal should be to accurately track ALL links that you control. If you control a link, you can put Campaign Tags on it and have total traffic-source-freedom!

UTM Campaign tags: marketing pixie dust that you control!

If you’ve hung around here for a while, you’ll have heard a little about UTM Campaign Tags. They are the magic ingredient for making sure that visits from Instagram, Pinterest and anywhere else show up in your Google Analytics reports correctly. Why doesn’t this happen right in the first place?? To know where a visitor came from,…

Read the article

2. Check your cross-domain tracking

Marketplace sellers (including Etsy): you don’t need to worry about this!

3. Ask your WordPress blog partners about their links

If you work with bloggers to advertise, guest blog, do paid reviews etc. then they probably use WordPress. Check whether their links to your shop are opening in a new tab and, if so, ask them if they’re using a plugin that removes that pesky “noreferrer” tag!

4. Make sure your whole site is secure (HTTPS)

If you use a hosted platform, like Shopify, or a marketplace, like Etsy, then you won’t have this problem. But if your shop is self-hosted (WordPress, Magento etc), then you must check this. Even if your shopping cart software automatically uses HTTPS on your cart and checkout pages (to keep your customers safe), the rest of your site might be accessible with HTTP.

Try to visit your shop by typing http://www.[yourdomain].com <– replace “[yourdomain]” with your actual domain! The point is to try visiting your site with HTTP at the start.

Once the site has loaded, check the browser bar again. If you’re in Chrome, it’ll look like one of these:

If there’s a lock symbol, then your site has redirected automatically to the secure version. If there’s a “Not secure” message or an open lock icon, then your site does NOT redirect automatically. Contact your web developer or host to find out how to configure this.

5. Etsy shop owners: double-check your traffic sources configuration

Not surprisingly, Etsy itself has a lot of Direct traffic — even genuine Direct traffic: people typing etsy.com and using bookmarks! By default, this traffic source is passed onto your Etsy shop unless you reconfigure your traffic sources with some filters.

The (almost) Definitive Guide to Real Etsy Traffic Sources in Google Analytics

LAST UPDATED: 29 July 2020, with important fixes to two Filters: Source: etsy.com and Medium: Etsy referrals POP QUIZ: Can Google Analytics answer this question? “How do people find my¬†Etsy store?” At first, Google Analytics looks like it has all the answers! There in your reports, you see:¬†direct traffic, referrals, a few from Facebook and…

Read the article

How to analyze your Direct traffic

Why does Direct perform so well?

Now we know that Direct traffic can include a wide range of actual sources:

  • People sharing links with their friends and family on messenger apps
  • Existing customers opening emails that you forgot to tag
  • Smartphone users coming via apps and search
  • And yes, even avid fans who bookmark your shop!

Depending on the exact makeup of Direct for your shop, it’s clear that many of these people are likely to be engaged and ready to buy! Now, it’s not surprising why many people see their highest conversion rate sitting against Direct.

Analyze with segments

Now that you understand most of the possible actual sources of Direct traffic, you can use segments and a few key reports to see which might apply to your shop. Let’s walk through the process together.

Apply the Direct Traffic segment

We’re going to take a look at some standard reports with an extra “Direct Traffic” segment applied. This will let us quickly see trends in our Direct traffic compared to our whole-site averages.

  1. At the top of any Google Analytics report, click [ + Add Segment ]
  2. In the drop-down panel, find and select “Direct Traffic
  3. At the bottom of the drop-down panel, click [ Apply ]

Don’t remove (unselect) the existing All Users segment.

  1. Click-and-drag the “Direct Traffic” segment so it sits to the left of the default All Users segment.

Start with Mobile & Tablet users

Mobile apps – including search! – are a major source of Direct traffic! They just aren’t very good at communicating with the web browser when they open a link. So this is the first place to start when analyzing your Direct visits.

Open the Report: Audience > Mobile > Overview

Note: I chose the “Ecommerce” metrics at the top of this example report, to make it easier to see the important details.

Analyze with me:
Segments
What percentage is mobile?
How does Direct perform?
What about tablet traffic?
Conclusions and next questions:
  • I expected that mobile sessions would make up a larger percentage of Direct traffic than it made of all traffic. But this wasn’t the case. I’ll have to segment it even more to find out why.
  • Direct mobile performs better than the mobile averages, and Direct desktop is worse. Let’s segment each of these and find out where the difference lies.
  • I’ll ignore Tablet visits for now, because there weren’t enough transactions to draw conclusions.

New segments

Since there’s such a difference in Direct mobile and desktop performance, I want to see each of these separately. I’m creating three new custom segments:

Direct + Mobile

Technology > Device Category exactly matches mobile

Traffic Sources > [Filter Sessions] > Source exactly matches (direct)

Direct + Desktop

Technology > Device Category exactly matches desktop

Traffic Sources > [Filter Sessions] > Source exactly matches (direct)

Desktop Traffic

Technology > Device Category exactly matches desktop

(Surprisingly, this is not a default segment!)

For full instructions on adding a new segment in Google Analytics, view the Build new segments Analytics Help document. Go to the section “Create new segments“.

Now my selected segments look like this:

TIP: The first segment in the list controls the report’s order. I’ll re-order these segments as I look at each report, to quickly find the top results for each segment.

Landing pages

Checking the landing pages that Direct traffic hits is a great way to tell just how “direct” it must have been. Nobody is manually typing in a full product URL!

Report preparation:

The question I’m asking first is: Where is the high conversion rate for Direct + Mobile coming from? Is it a particular landing page?

  1. Open the Report: Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages
  2. Switch to Ecommerce metrics (top of report)
  3. Re-order segments to: Direct + Mobile (controls report order), Mobile Traffic, Direct + Desktop, Desktop Traffic
  4. Sort report by column Ecommerce Conversion Rate (descending)
  5. Advanced Search: Include Sessions greater than 10. (This takes out individual outliers and lets us focus on pages that actually contributed to the overall results. I just chose “10” because of the general range of sessions I could see in the report – not because it’s a magic number.)
Analyze with me:
Ignore Desktop traffic in this analysis…
Anonymized product category page
What are the odds!
Uh-oh!
Half our Direct+Mobile transactions
Highest conversion rates
Conclusions and next questions:

It’s clear that the search result page for the keyword “Wreath” was shared somewhere. That’s not a URL that people manually type in or that 50+ people bookmark.

We can segment one more time to try to find out more information.

Segment by Source / Medium:

To prepare this report, I:

  1. Removed the two “Direct+” segments. (I don’t need them anymore after step 3, below.)
  2. Clicked into the /search?q=Wreath landing page row
  3. Added a Secondary Dimension: Source / Medium
All traffic sources to this landing page
Not many Facebook sales
So many sales!
No sales from search

Unfortunately, our analysis was inconclusive. However, we can say a few things:

  1. These visitors were very qualified. They were super ready to buy and did not arrive by accident.
  2. The link is for a very specific kind of product, which suggests some kind of promotion.
  3. The link was clearly shared on Facebook at some point, but the Direct traffic doesn’t look the same as the Facebook traffic, which didn’t have so many sales. However, this does tell us that it was shared, so there was some kind of promotion.

If I were this site owner, I’d check my marketing activities and find out if I shared this URL myself, which would give me a great idea of the real source of those 33 Direct visits and 19 sales.

What to do about your Direct traffic

So we understand what Direct traffic is, isn’t and can sometimes be. We know how to minimize it and analyse our own Direct traffic. But what kinds of actions should we be taking?

  1. Use Campaign Tags. (Yes, I know this was my advice above, but it can’t be overstated! Keep your Direct channel clean.)
  2. Think carefully about whether you’re getting enough traffic to warrant diving in too deep. If you’re getting fewer than 200 total sessions per week and/or less than 10% of your sessions are Direct, a full analysis will be a waste of your time. Focus on good marketing practices instead.
  3. Make it easier to share your products privately with tagged links. Add Share buttons to your products and, if possible, include links for messenger apps like WhatsApp. Make sure those Share buttons automatically add Campaign Tags to the links and put them through a URL shortener.
  4. Whatever you do to increase organic social and search, will also increase Direct. That’s ok! Focus on improving the quality of these visitors and their experience in your shop, and you’ll see flow-on effects to your Direct traffic. You don’t need perfect attribution to help these visitors and get more sales.
  5. Take care of your repeat visitors and buyers. Direct traffic may be returning visitors, so experiment with offering special coupons or highlighting products they might like. (This is dependent on your ecommerce platform!)
  6. Make sure your shop is easy to use on a mobile phone, including the cart and checkout system. If your Direct visitors are mostly on devices, this will help them in particular.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.