Causes of too much direct traffic in Google Analytics

May 22, 2020

Direct traffic, from an analysis perspective, is the least useful category in Google Analytics (or any other web traffic analysis tool). It’s Google Analytics’ way of saying – “I don’t have any information about where this traffic comes from”.

Some direct traffic is unavoidable, and typically we expect to see about 20% - 25% of traffic tagged as direct – for example, if someone types your URL into their browser, there isn’t a way to know how they found out about your site in the first place.

But we’ve seen sites with much higher percentages of direct traffic, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

What is direct traffic?

Most requests for webpages include information about the webpage that a visitor is coming from – the referrer. This information is in the request header, and you can see it if you take a look at the network traffic associated with the webpage request.

If a visit is missing this information, it will be counted as direct – with one important exception. If you supply information about where the visit is coming from via a utm_medium parameter, that visit will count as coming via that medium. Ideally, you should also use utm_source. So a URL like yoursite.com?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter will not count as direct, even if there isn’t any referral information.

Preliminary investigation

If you have too much direct traffic, we suggest doing some preliminary investigation of your trends to rule possibilities out. In particular, look to see if:

  • The trends for direct traffic follow overall site traffic trends – is the percentage of traffic relatively constant?
  • Or does it spike along with certain activities such as email sends, or even radio ads?
  • You might also want to see if direct traffic is coming from certain device types, certain countries, or to certain pages.

The Segment view is really helpful for this.

Sources of direct traffic

There are a few particular sources of direct traffic that we see frequently.

Email, especially prospecting email from your sellers. When a link in an email is clicked, there often isn’t any referrer information sent. If you send a lot of email, or if your sellers do, that can mean a lot of direct traffic. To fix this, make sure your links have utm_medium (and utm_source) parameters added. You’ll want to make sure any links in your email template, such as a link back to your homepage from the header, are tagged this way as well.

Inconsistent Google Analytics implementation. Depending on your exact setup, it’s likely that Google Analytics counts referrals from your own domain as direct traffic – after all, a referral from your own domain doesn’t really give you any information about where the traffic originally came from. And a good way to get referrals from your own domain is to omit the Google Analytics pixel on some pages on your site.

In that case, Google Analytics would see:

  • Nothing (because one of your landing pages is missing the Google Analytics script), or
  • A new visitor (because the page has the Google Analytics script), but with a referral from your own domain – which counts as direct traffic.

To fix this, make sure Google Analytics is on every page of your site. And make sure you’re using the same Google Analytics property on each page, as well.

Insecure sites. Your site should be serving in https, for lots of reasons. If it isn’t, you may also see additional referral traffic, as document referrers generally aren’t sent from https to http sites. To get around this, you can add utm_medium and utm_source parameters, but note that those won’t work for links you don’t control (like most backlinks).

Traffic from social apps. This is a less common reason for direct traffic, but does happen. When you go from an app, like Instagram or Twitter, to a website, referrer information is generally not sent. To get around this, make sure to tag your social links with utm_medium and utm_source.

Conclusion

Direct traffic isn’t bad! But it’s helpful to understand where all your traffic is coming from, and you don’t want traffic marked as direct if it isn’t. Use Google Analytics for clues – compare your direct traffic to your site traffic over time, and look to see if it’s coming to specific pages. As a best practice, tag your external links, especially in email, with utm_medium and utm_source. And make sure Google Analytics is served consistently across your entire site.


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