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analyzing direct traffic

Analyzing Direct Traffic: WTF Is It?! Why Do I Have It?

  • May 11, 2015

About the author

Ryan Stewart

I have an unhealthy obsession with being considered the world's BEST internet marketer. I'm highly active on social media and love a good debate.

Quick answer:

Direct traffic = a visit to your site without a known referral source.

That answers the “what“. How about the “why“?

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • The value of direct traffic
  • Why you have so much direct traffic
  • Ways to reduce your direct traffic

Let’s get into it.


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1. Is Direct Traffic Valuable?

Google published an interactive post showing the customer path to online purchase.

The data is segmented by industry, business size (small, medium, large) and sourced from millions of Google Analytics profiles.

Using their data, I put together my own analysis. I broke it into 2 sections:

  • First touch attribution / interaction. The traffic source driving users to a website for the first time.
  • Last touch attribution / interaction. The traffic source driving users to a website for the last time (aka conversion).

The goal is to show how direct traffic plays into your overall efforts.

First Interactions Direct Traffic

Organic, social and display are the leading sources of discovery traffic.

Last Interactions Direct Traffic

Are you seeing the same thing I am?

Direct traffic is by far the most common last touch attribution channel.

Let’s dig into it more to find answers.


Need help with your analytics? Leverage our full service Analytics consultants.


2. Why Do I Have So Much Direct Traffic?

Direct traffic can be broadly traced from 3 sources:

  • Users visiting your site directly
  • When a site’s referral data is not passed
  • Untagged campaign traffic

I’ll walk you through each of these.

Direct Traffic Source #1: Users Visiting Site Directly

Users visiting your site directly, aka typing your exact URL into their browser, is mainly a result of 2 things:

  • A well known brand
  • Offline advertising

Even if you meet both of those requirements, I’m willing to bet this is the smallest portion of direct traffic you’re receiving.

Let’s say you’re running the billboard below:

Direct Traffic is a Result of Offline Ads

I’m driving down the road, I see it and think “Holy sh!t! This billboard speaks to me – I need to visit their site…NOW!”. I pull out my phone and type in the URL.

Well, I attempt to anyways.

What I really type is something along the lines of “pulltheplguonatheims.com”.

This gibberish redirects me to a Google search, which correctly lists the URL. More often than not, offline advertising leads to an increase in branded search, not direct traffic.

You can check your branded queries in Google Webmaster Tools:

  • Search Traffic > Search Analytics
  • Select: Clicks, Impressions, CTR
  • Select: Queries

What you’ll see is the search queries over the date you selected. Simply filter out non branded search terms and you’ll be left with branded queries.

Breaking Down Direct Traffic

Here are 2 additional questions to help determine if people are visiting your site directly:


Question 1: Am I blocking internal IPs?

Your employees, contractors and clients generally access your site a lot. If you aren’t filtering out their IP address, they’re a likely culprit for direct traffic (by typing your URL verbatim).

You should be blocking internal traffic in your Analytics account – if you aren’t, you need to read our blog more!


Question 2: Is my direct traffic coming from new or returning users?

If your direct traffic is coming mostly from return visits, then there’s a good chance users are visiting your site directly. Here’s how to check:

  • Navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium
  • Click on (direct) / (none)

Direct Traffic Analytics

As you can see, my site does 77% new visits from direct traffic. Again, for non brand sites, this is typical.

Therefore, your direct traffic is most likely not coming from users directly typing your address.

Total amount of YOUR direct traffic: 5 – 10%

Direct Traffic Source #2: Referral Data Not Passed

When referral data not passed, Google Analytics classifies it as direct traffic.

There are dozens of reasons for this, but I’m going to cover the 7 most common scenarios


1. HTTPS:// referring to non HTTPS:// (HTTP://) sites

HTTPS:// is a secure version of HTTP://.

HTTPS Site vs Non HTTPS Site

When HTTPS:// sites send traffic to non HTTPS:// sites the browser doesn’t pass referral data. This is because of security reasons. If your site isn’t on HTTPS://, it’s contributing to your direct traffic.

This isn’t always the case. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are HTTPS:// secure yet they show up as referrals.

Referra Traffic HTTPS Analytics

This is for 2 reasons:

  • They use a redirect script. These sites first send users to an intermediate HTTP:// site before the end referral. That’s why Twitter shows up as t.co in your Analytics account. Using this intermediate redirect helps social networks to protect PII data.
  • They have a vested interest. These sites make money on their ability to drive traffic. If you couldn’t verify that they were the source, you wouldn’t spend time, effort and resources on those sites.

2. Traffic from non web docs (PDFs, Word, Excel, etc)

Links from offline documents like Excel, PowerPoint and Word do not pass referral data.

I send out around 100 documents a week:

Referral Data from Offline Doc Not Passes

Over time, these clicks can add up and make up a good portion of direct traffic.

Need help with your analytics? Leverage our full service Analytics consultants.


3. Traffic from Apps

Almost no applications pass referral data. That includes:

  • Mobile apps
  • Social media apps (Facebook games, etc)
  • Desktop apps (Applications downloaded to your computer)

Traffic from these sources are dumped into direct.


4. Links with “noreferrer” attribute

Some links are tagged with “rel=noreferrer” attribute. In this case, referral data is not passed.

Example:<a hres= “https://webris.org/blog/” rel=”noreffer” > No data will pull through</a>

5. Links from desktop email clients

Do you use Outlook from your desktop? Millions of people do.

Any links coming opened from desktop Outlook (i.e. links you send via email, signature, etc) pass no referral data.

6. Errors in your GA script

If you didn’t hire an Analytics professional to  implement your code, there’s a good change it’s not correct. Often times cookie data isn’t properly set up causing resets – these sessions pass no referral data.

7. Redirects

If you’ve ever redirected one site into another, referral data can get lost in between.

For example, we recently changed our domain from marketic.co to webris.org. We set up a server side redirect (301) from the old into the new.

Marketic.co did about 1,000 referral visits a month. A lot of those legacy links that still driving traffic don’t pass referral data, as the JavaScript tag can get lost in the redirect (aka the “hop”).

Total amount of YOUR direct traffic: 30 – 50%

Direct Traffic Source #3: Untagged Campaign Traffic

By “Untagged”, I mean without Analytics tracking parameters. If you use Google Analytics, they offer a free tool that makes tagging URLs easy.

Tagging links before publishing allows you to dictate to Analytics where the traffic comes from.

I promote my content everywhere. Forums, email signatures, social media groups, social media profiles, blog comments – every place they let me drop a link, I will.

Most of these sites fall into the categories listed above (aka don’t pass referral source).

In the next section, I give actionable guidance how to track efforts using campaign parameters.

Total amount of YOUR direct traffic: 25 – 55%


3. How Can I Reduce Direct Traffic?

Solution 1: Tag Everything

I mean everything. Offline docs, social media posts, forum signatures – everything!

Most people don’t tag URLs because they think it’s a pain in the ass.

Well, it is a pain in the ass, but I have an easy short cut.

Let’s say you’re on your favorite forum and you come across a highly active thread. You decide to add a comment and drop a link to a related piece of content on your site.

Not so Fast my Friend

Any of you get that reference? No? Ok, I digress…

The point is, tag the link before you post it. It’s easy, here’s how:

  • Install the Google Analytics URL Builder browser plug in
  • Click on it to open it
  • Paste your URL that you plan to share in the first box
  • Source: enter the site/forum/blog name
  • Medium: in this case it would be referral. You’re smart enough to figure it out…
  • Campaign: enter a unique tag to help you identify it

Here’s what I would enter to tag a link for Warrior Forum:

How to Tag a URL

As opposed to getting dumped into (direct) / (none), the data will show up as you tagged it. See below:

Example of a Tagged URL


Solution 2: Dig into Analytics

Sometimes you can’t tag a link.

For example:

Guest blogging.

I guest post as a link building tactic. Most of the time, the sites I write for are on HTTPS:// protocols, meaning the referral data won’t pass to my Analytics.

I could tag the links in the URL builder, but that causes an SEO issue.

Tagged URLs do NOT redirect to the root URL.

Tagged URLs DO NOT Redirect

This presents a potential issue with link equity.

Because the tagged URL remains, technically, you’re building a link to another URL.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Let’s say I write a killer blog post about SEO for small businesses and I want to rank it. To do so, I need links. So I promote it through guest blogging.

The URL indexed by Google is: https://webris.org/content/


Option 1

Option 1: I write a guest post and link to my target content. The link passes equity, but I’m unable to track referral traffic through the link.

Option 2


Option 2: I tag the link. I can track the referral traffic, but run the risk of losing the link’s equity.

Before you sh!t a brick, let me explain!

I know Google ignores the tags after the root URL. There’s plenty of healthy debates about this, but here’s my take:

Tagging a link on another site points to an unnatural link scheme. Why would a natural, editorial, non paid link have URL tags? It wouldn’t.

I link out to other sites all the time and I would never, ever tag the URL for them. That’s just my two cents – tag at your own risk!


Profile links:

There’s only one place Instagram allows links: your profile. The network also does not pass referral data.

I often manage my client’s Instagram marketing, so it’s critical I measure the impact of my efforts.

Tracking Instagram Efforts

I could tag it, but it would leave an ugly ass URL in the profile. I could also dump the tagged URL into a bit.ly, but people like to see what they’re clicking on.

So, how do I track the efforts from guest posting and Instagram? By digging into Analytics.

1. Log into Google Analytics and navigate to: Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium.

2. Set the date to short, recent time periods. I like to review on Saturdays for the previous week.

Detecting Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

3. Click on (direct) / (none)

What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

4. On the Secondary Dimension drop down, select Landing Page

Digging into Direct Traffic in Your Analytics Account

By assessing the landing pages of direct traffic from a recent time period, you can get a good picture where the traffic came from.

Let’s take a week at my top 3 (direct) / (none) traffic for the last few days:

Direct Traffic Report

  • / – I rarely leave links to my home page, so I can deduce this traffic is coming from naturally generated links (HELL yes!). Also, by looking the traffic volume I can tell they’re probably coming from quality sites (double HELL yes!).
  • /blog-seo/ – I did some manual outreach this past week to promote that blog post. I ended up connecting with someone who agreed to feature it on their email list. I’m 90% positive that’s where this traffic is coming from.
  • /ultimate-list/ – I promoted this content on Inbound and Growth Hackers this week. I was lazy and didn’t tag the content (my mistake). I’m almost positive the traffic is coming from there.

As you can see, there’s no exact science. However, there are some additional steps you can take to make life easier.

For example, if you look at the screen of my Instagram account (above), you’ll notice the link in my profile isn’t to my home page. It’s a deep link to my personal consulting page.

If I want to find out how much traffic I’m getting from Instagram, all I have to do is run the report above with a few extra steps:

  • Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium
  • Filter for the consulting URL
  • Layer on Mobile Traffic segment
  • On the Secondary Dimension drop down, select Landing Page

Digging out Direct Traffic Uncovering Your Direct Traffic

There you go – that’s how much traffic my Instagram profile is driving.


Solution 3: Set up HTTPS://

If you want to cut down on a large portion of direct traffic, migrate your site to a secure HTTPS:// connection.

To do so, you’ll need to buy an SSL certificate from your web host. For more information on the matter, check with your web host.


Wrapping it Up

While there are a number of ways to cut down on direct traffic, keep in mind web analytics isn’t an exact science. There’s no way to get rid of it completely.

However, following the steps laid out here will go a long way to help.

Did I miss anything? Leave your tactics to uncover direct traffic in the comments below!

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Comments ( 24 )

  • Kelly Says
    8 years ago

    I like your site – lots of great information here. I don’t like all these fake twitter accounts you have that keep “favorite-ing” my tweets. That’s some spammy shizz, dude.

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    8 years ago

    hey kelly – thanks for the compliment. but, i won’t apologize for the bots. i’m testing out the scalability of their usage – so far, it works (you’re here!)

  • Sam Says
    8 years ago

    Our website can be viewed over both HTTPS and HTTP if an HTTPS site links to use (but uses HTTP) does this mean referral traffic will be seen as direct traffic?

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    8 years ago

    hey sam – yes, more than likely it will.

  • Vinit Joshi Says
    8 years ago

    I’d love to have an estimate on the kind of conversion rates one can expect from Direct Traffic, knowing a priori that this actually comprises of 1) Actual Direct Traffic 2)Unattributed Referrers 3) Untagged Campaigns

  • Alessandro Says
    8 years ago

    Does a 302 redirect from http://www.domain.ext to http://domain.ext/dir cause the referral dropping?

  • Sasha S. Says
    8 years ago

    Good explanations. Just to add one more thing – if you are running Google shopping campaign, visitors from Google shopping will be also under “Direct” traffic. If your products show up on top of Google search results and someone click then it will be under “Organic”.

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    8 years ago

    I generally stay away from 302 redirects unless it’s for a very short period of time.

  • Dorie Says
    8 years ago

    I di’dnt know where to find this info then kaboom it was here.

  • Jessie Says
    8 years ago

    It’s a joy to find sooenme who can think like that

  • chris Says
    7 years ago

    Just wanted to thank you for writing this up. Great insights on how to actually evaluate direct traffic and make some educated decisions about where it’s coming from.

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    7 years ago

    thanks chris! this is actually one of my favorite posts that never got much attention.

  • Ben Says
    7 years ago

    is there a way to audit the answer to question #1, are you filtering internal traffic. i work out of a million places and probably have ip’s that aren’t accoujnted fori, but i don’t know what i dont’ know. which ones have i caught and which ones are not being filtered? it doesn’t look like i can identify the ip addresses of my direct traffic from log files… is there anothe way to address this?

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    7 years ago

    if its just you thats accounting for the traffic, its not a big deal. im referring to larger organizations that have hundreds (thousands) of employees on their site everyday.

  • Ryan Stewart Says
    7 years ago

    thanks for the add!

  • Bryant Says
    7 years ago

    Any chance you could explain how implementing an SSL (http > https) drops direct traffic without displacing it to referral or organic? I found in multiple cases it cut direct by 50-60{476a1b9825899f7e21f124b8533c8410a6ecd3a860b9841e06adbefeac0656e9} and everything is squared away with the 301, GA properties, vhosts, and search console.

  • George F. Vargas Says
    7 years ago

    Great post. Direct traffic analyzing doesn’t seem much crucial before reading this post. Thanks for the update.


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