Yes, Google Analytics categorizes sessions that come from those sources as direct traffic, but that’s not the only traffic that gets reported to that channel. When Google Analytics lacks sufficient data about how a visitor arrived at your site to categorize the session any other way, it assigns it to direct traffic.
This misattribution to direct traffic is GA’s fall-back option when it doesn’t know how else to report a session. Maybe a more descriptive name for this channel would be “unknown traffic.”
The “black box” of direct traffic obscures valuable information about which channels some website visitors are coming from, plus it dilutes the data from visitors who actually are coming directly to your site. So, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to dig into why direct traffic happens and clean up as much wrongly-assigned traffic as possible.
What Does Direct Traffic Have To Do With SEO?
Some marketers might dismiss metrics from the direct traffic channel as having little use in the context of search optimization. While these numbers have no direct bearing on your SEO campaign, it’s valuable to understand what causes the miscategorization of other kinds of traffic into this channel and clean up what you can so that the rest of your traffic metrics accurately reflect your optimization efforts.
Let’s look at some of the potential causes of direct traffic and what you can do to minimize misattribution in traffic sources.
What Does Direct Traffic Measure?
In a perfect world, one might say that direct traffic measures visits from your most loyal customers. For that reason alone, I think there’s value in digging deeper into direct traffic and taking steps to reduce the amount of traffic from unknown sources landing in this channel. Once you isolate the sessions from your biggest fans, you can glean some valuable insights from that data. Looking more closely at their engagement on your site helps you strategize ways to cater to their needs through search optimized content and increase their overall lifetime value as customers.
What Causes Direct Traffic?
1 – Manual address entry and bookmarking
This is the most classic definition of direct traffic. When someone types your URL directly into their browser’s address bar or uses a bookmark they’d previously saved, they intend to come straight to your site.
2 – Broken or Missing Tracking Code
I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion when a new landing page gets launched without the GA tracking code. If users land on a page with no tracking code, then clicks through to another page, GA registers that session as direct traffic.
One red flag for broken tracking codes is if a new landing page fails to register in any other traffic channels at the same time you see an uptick in direct traffic.
You can fix this issue by adding the missing code to the page, or better yet, take steps to prevent this sort of thing from happening again by moving to a GTM-based tracking implementation.
3 – Improper Redirection
The fix? Don’t use meta refreshes or JS redirects. Opt for server-side redirects, but audit and maintain your redirect file regularly to stave off a complex system of redirects (which can also eat up your crawl budget).
4 – Links from Non-Web Documents
Links from pdfs, slide decks, or Word docs don’t pass referral information. Therefore, by default, sessions that originate from these links will appear as direct traffic.
One way to avoid this is to include UTM campaign parameters in embedded hyperlinks. Start a practice of having these parameters in all your downloadables, freebies, or any other non-web assets you distribute.
5 – “Dark” Social
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Not to worry, there’s nothing nebulous about dark social. The term refers to social sharing methods that Google can’t easily attribute to a particular source, such as email, instant messaging, Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. What makes these sources of traffic “dark” is their private nature. While not easily leveraged for traditional marketing campaigns, there’s tremendous potential in these platforms to tap into the power of word-of-mouth.
The only way to correctly attribute some of the traffic from dark social and keep it out of the direct channel bucket is to use rigorous campaign tracking. An excellent first step is to add these platforms to your social sharing buttons and add UTM parameters to the URLs.
6 – Clicking from a Secure Page
When a user clicks a link on a secure page (HTTPS) that brings them to a non-secure page (HTTP), referring data is not passed along, so the session is attributed to direct traffic. This is precisely how the secure protocol is designed to behave.
Understanding this can provide context if, for instance, your referral traffic suddenly takes a nosedive and your direct traffic spikes. It isn’t necessarily a poor reflection of backlinking efforts. It’s more likely that one of your biggest referrers has migrated from HTTP to HTTPS, rendering it impossible to track traffic from their site.
If you were to see something like the steep decline in referral traffic below, the first thing you might want to do is check your direct traffic metrics to see if there’s a reciprocal incline in that traffic channel.
How to Reduce Direct Traffic from HTTPS
The scenario I described above only plays out if your site is not secure. If your website uses the HTTPS protocol, then referring traffic information will not be stripped from your session metrics.
It makes sense if you stop to think about it. A secure site is considered a safe place to share information. If you’re not already on HTTPS, migrating to it would not only solve this issue but would likely boost your search visibility overall since Google gives ranking preference to secure websites.
The Benefits of Reducing Direct Traffic
Once you’ve done everything you can to make sure Google Analytics is correctly identifying where your traffic is coming from, you can rest assured that the numbers reported in your other traffic channels are more accurate.
When you’re being held accountable for the results of your marketing campaigns, correct attribution is the only way to measure ROI accurately.
An added benefit of cleaning up direct traffic is that you can place more trust in what you learn from the sessions that truly originate from direct sources. As I mentioned before, undiluted direct traffic data can tell you a lot about your most loyal customers, their browsing habits, and their purchase patterns.
From an SEO perspective, the better you understand who’s visiting your site and why, the easier it is to target keywords to those user groups and create SEO content that will attract look-alike customers.
There’s undeniable value in being able to trust your website analytics. Understanding nuances in the data that most marketers overlook will give you a competitive advantage in the long run.
At our SEO agency, we work with our customers to craft custom campaigns from our SEO services to help them fulfill their unique business goals. As part of an ongoing partnership, we continually monitor traffic analytics for their sites. That way, we can spot anomalies that might indicate technical oversights which could impact their online visibility.
If you’re looking for a partner who’s got your back, reach out for more information about how we can help.