When I do a seminar or a training (I am Google Regional Trainer in AdWords & Analytics) direct traffic is often one of the tougher things for the audience to understand. My audience is usually comprised of digital marketers, SEOs, AdWords specialists and SMB owners and IT/web development background is usually rare.
The usual definition is that it’s type-in traffic, just users returning to your site by typing your URL, etc. Even the definition in Google’s own help center states “users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your site”.
This, however, is highly misleading and inaccurate, as I can demonstrate with a simple screenshot:
These are not that different from our organic traffic, right? Tons of new users in the direct segment! Can’t be all from prior users and bookmarks.
In order to understand what “direct / none” in your Source / Medium report really is you need to know at least a bit about the technical side of how Google Analytics is able to say where visitors to your site come from.
How does Google Analytics recognize referrer sources?
The web runs on a number of protocols and one of the most widely used one is HTTP. In it there is a specification for how a browser might pass information about the referring source to a web server:
The Referer[sic] request-header field allows the client to specify, for the server’s benefit, the address (URI) of the resource from which the Request-URI was obtained (the “referrer”, although the header field is misspelled.) The Referer request-header allows a server to generate lists of back-links to resources for interest, logging, optimized caching, etc. It also allows obsolete or mistyped links to be traced for maintenance. The Referer field MUST NOT be sent if the Request-URI was obtained from a source that does not have its own URI, such as input from the user keyboard.
Clear and neat, right? So basically when a user’s browser is requesting a page on your site it can supply this “Referer” field, which is accessible to Google Analytics as well. It reads the value and parses it, processes it and then displays it in your source / medium reports. Make note that this is not mandatory and also that it “MUST NOT” be set in case the source doesn’t have a Unique Resource Identifier. This will be important in just a second.
What is Direct traffic in Google Analytics then?
The second thing you need to understand in order to know what direct sessions really are is how Google Analytics attributes traffic to traffic sources and mediums. For the people with deeper interest I highly recommend getting yourself acquainted with the processing flow chart at the bottom of this page from the GA help center.
For the others, here is the short version: GA will check for AdWords auto-tagging, UTM campaign tagging parameters and the HTTP referrer field we just discussed, in that order. If none of these are set AND if there is no prior campaign data associated with the user’s browser (ID is clientId in the _ga cookie) then Google Analytics will mark such traffic as… wait for it… direct / none
So direct traffic is not direct at all, it’s just unknown, undefined. Google has no idea if your user typed in your URL, if they used a bookmark or if something else happened. Let that really sink in and to help that process, let us see in what other cases the user’s browser will not set the “Referer” field.
The different types of “Direct”, a.k.a. “Unknown” traffic
Here is an uncomplete list of the cases when a user will navigate to your site and Google Analytics will not know where the user came from so the sessions will be marked as “direct / none” (unless previous campaign data exists for that cookie!):
- User types in a URL
- User clicks on a bookmark
- User clicks on a link in an e-mail from Outlook or Thunderbird or similar desktop software
- User clicks on a link in Skype or other desktop messengers
- User clicks on a link in a PDF, DocX, ODF, XLSX or a different type of document.
- User clicks on a link in a mobile app
- User clicks on a link from a secured site (https://something) to your non-secured site (just http://something)
- User clicks through a URL-shortener or in a different scenario where certain JS is being used (rare)
- User clicks on a link in any desktop software in general…
As you can easily see, there is a plethora of very common cases in which a user will NOT type in your URL and will NOT be using a bookmark and still be tracked as direct traffic in GA. That’s why I think “unknown” is a much better term. Most of these are related to other applications forcing the browser to open a link, but in the case of https to http we actually have users coming from another site who are still not tracked as proper referrers. That’s because in the case of SSL to Non-SSL the browser is required to not pass the referral information. Now that we know what direct / none really is, let’s see what we can do understand it better.
Knowing the Unknown: Demystifying Direct Traffic
There are two things you can do in order to see in the black box that is direct traffic.
1. Breakdown by Landing Pages
The simplest thing you can do immediately and retroactively is to just take a look at your landing pages breakdown for the direct / none source/medium dimension. Are people landing on pages that are only accessible to logged-in users? Are they landing on pages that you’ve used in e-mail campaigns or system/operational emails? Are they landing on pages to which you have links in your desktop or mobile software (if you’re a desktop or mobile software company).
Let’s see how that looks for our own site, www.analytics-toolkit.com:
As will be the general case – most direct traffic arrives at the homepage, however, we have big amounts of it landing on various tool pages, our prices page, login page and at our account activation page. You can see the % new sessions metric is being very helpful in this case – it varies greatly between landing pages, suggesting very different types of traffic are landing on them.
If you are a more advanced user you can use the landing pages to define custom segments, custom channels and custom MCF channels in order to get better idea of the different types of traffic from unknown sources.
2. UTM Campaign Tagging
This is something you can do for direct traffic that you control: emails of all kinds, links embedded in desktop software or mobile apps, links in materials distributed as PDFs or other types of documents, affiliate links, etc. By tagging your links you’ll supply Google Analytics with the referral data you want. You can use Google’s URL builder tool or our own Advanced URL Builder to assist in this task. However, this will only apply for traffic going forward, so if you want to analyze prior direct sessions see solution #1 above.
As you can see, understanding direct traffic is not the easiest thing, but it’s probably not the hardest either. If you like this article, let me know, as we are planning on releasing a series of these more educational articles in the very near future.What is (direct) / (none) source in Google Analytics? by Georgi Georgiev