(858) 848-0442 solutions@cthru.media

How to Shine a Light on the Black Hole that is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Leslie Ramey

15 January 2018

Google Analytics provides marketers with a seemingly endless treasure trove of visitor information… with one big exception. Many marketers hardly give a thought to their direct traffic numbers, assuming that it’s a black hole from which no useful data can be acquired. That isn’t necessarily true. Most marketers don’t fully understand how user sessions get tossed into the direct traffic bucket and how they can better interpret that data. Let’s shine a light on this black hole!

Direct Traffic, a Pointless Catchall?

Direct traffic is the red-headed stepchild of the Google Analytics traffic report. Most marketers ignore it altogether, assuming that it is only comprised of users who directly typed in their website’s URL or clicked on a bookmarked link. It’s not surprising that with this belief, most marketers see direct traffic stats as useless and certainly not worth investigating.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. When Google can’t identify how a user ended up on your site, that session gets dumped into the direct traffic bucket. This includes people who manually enter a URL, but it also includes a wide range of other users. It’s one of the reasons why direct traffic has earned the nickname “Dark Traffic” by some in the analytics industry.

The fact that direct traffic is a catchall bucket means that you have an opportunity to identify and properly re-categorize certain users. By paying attention to direct traffic, you can improve the accuracy of your analytics and gain new insight into some of your most valuable website visitors. Let’s break these user categories down and look at ways you can better track your website visitors.

Bookmarks and Manual Entry

So yes, a portion of your direct traffic is likely coming from people who directly type in your URL or click on it as a bookmark.

The Fix: There really isn’t a way to track these people, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. In fact, someone who knows your URL by heart or has made the effort to bookmark your site is probably a heavy user and big fan. This is your target audience! By moving out other users who have been inadvertently added to your direct traffic bucket, you can get a purer picture of these super fans and how they use your site.

Bots

Bots are here, and sometimes it seems like they were only made to mess with your data. They do have their uses, however, so instead of hating on them, you can put in place measures to exclude them from your data.

The Fix: Under the “View Settings” tab of Google Analytics, you can choose the option to exclude known spiders. This will help clear out some of the fake hits to your site and lower your direct traffic numbers.

Broken Code

If the Google Analytics code wasn’t placed on a page of your website or was corrupted, then traffic from that page onto another page of your site will show up as direct traffic.

The Fix: This one is super easy. Perform a site-wide review and ensure that Google Analytics is fully functional on all pages.

HTTPS to HTTP

If your site is non-secured (your URL will start with HTTP), then some of your direct traffic could be a result of HTTPS sites. When a user jumps from an HTTPS site to an HTTP site, part of the HTTPS security protocol is to block the referral data, which will put that session into your direct traffic bucket.

The Fix: The best fix for this situation is to upgrade your site to HTTPS. This will not only make your analytics more accurate, but it will also protect the security of your users. You should really consider upgrading your website just for that reason!

Email

When someone loves your latest blog post and emails a link to all their friends, that’s a big win… except you’ll never know where all that traffic came from. Those visitors will all show up as direct traffic.

The Fix: There really is no fix to this situation, except for a very close look at your analytics. If you notice, for example, that your new blog post received a spike in direct traffic, you can extrapolate that a portion of visitors are probably following a social media or email link.

On your end, whenever you send an email out to your fan base, make sure that all of your links are trackable. Google’s URL Builder will let you tie that link into specific campaigns, making it a cinch to track and analyze.

Apps

Despite the huge rise in usage of mobile apps, Google still hasn’t figured out a consistent way of tracking and identifying traffic from apps. That means a lot of traffic from apps will show up as direct traffic.

The Fix: There really isn’t much that marketers can do to identify app traffic except to ask their visitors how they found their site. It may be possible to reach out to app makers and partner with them to implement trackable links, but that’s a pretty work intensive way to identify your traffic. Instead, as app usage continues to supplant search, we’re hoping that Google releases some new capabilities in a future Analytics update.

Social Media

It is every marketer’s dream to get their tribe gushing about their business and products on social media platforms. However, Google Analytics’ ability to track traffic from social media is limited to the top tier sites and does not include major messaging apps. Traffic from smaller social media sites and messaging apps, including Skype, WhatsApp, and the huge powerhouse of Facebook Messenger can all show up as direct traffic.

The Fix: This situation is a big weakness with Google Analytics, and again, the real fix needs to come from the Google team. Marketers can try to send out customized and trackable links, but it can be nearly impossible to convince all your individual fans to use them when chatting and recommending you to their friends.

Organic Traffic Categorized as Direct

One of the biggest challenges that direct traffic creates for reporting is that a large proportion is actually organic traffic that should be awarded to your SEO efforts. Some studies have shown that as much as 60% of direct traffic is actually organic traffic. Knowing that much of your direct traffic is organic can help you as you assess the efforts of your SEO team.

The Fix: Knowledge is power. While there isn’t an actionable way (that isn’t labor intensive) to separate your organic from your direct traffic knowing that as much as 50% is from organic can help you assess your efforts. If you start to implement a new SEO strategy and see an increase in organic traffic it’s a fair assumption that some of that change could be organic.

Analyzing Your Direct Traffic

It may take a little work, but you can at least clean up your direct traffic numbers and get more of your visitors into the traffic right buckets. The users who are left are still worth analyzing. As mentioned earlier in this article, they may represent some of your biggest fans. Google Analytics’ programs still allow you to study their flow through your website and implement engagement metrics to study their behavior. These efforts can yield useful insights and help you serve even your most mysterious visitors. At the end of the day, direct traffic is still traffic. You can’t afford to ignore any members of your audience!

Need help shining the light on your direct traffic and interpreting your Google Analytics reports? Fill out a contact form today to schedule a consultation with cThru Media.

Social Media

It is every marketer’s dream to get their tribe gushing about their business and products on social media platforms. However, Google Analytics’ ability to track traffic from social media is limited to the top tier sites and does not include major messaging apps. Traffic from smaller social media sites and messaging apps, including Skype, WhatsApp, and the huge powerhouse of Facebook Messenger can all show up as direct traffic.

The Fix: This situation is a big weakness with Google Analytics, and again, the real fix needs to come from the Google team. Marketers can try to send out customized and trackable links, but it can be nearly impossible to convince all your individual fans to use them when chatting and recommending you to their friends.

Organic Traffic Categorized as Direct

One of the biggest challenges that direct traffic creates for reporting is that a large proportion is actually organic traffic that should be awarded to your SEO efforts. Some studies have shown that as much as 60% of direct traffic is actually organic traffic. Knowing that much of your direct traffic is organic can help you as you assess the efforts of your SEO team.

The Fix: Knowledge is power. While there isn’t an actionable way (that isn’t labor intensive) to separate your organic from your direct traffic knowing that as much as 50% is from organic can help you assess your efforts. If you start to implement a new SEO strategy and see an increase in organic traffic it’s a fair assumption that some of that change could be organic.

Be the first to read our latest news news articles? Subscribe to our Awesome Newsletter.