Google Analytics “Direct” traffic is “Unknown” traffic
While listening to an interview with an analytics vendor the other day, I heard a phrase that is too often repeated and can be summarized as “… we flag users as highly engaged when they type your website address directly into your browser”. The problem with this statement is nuanced but will become clear in a second.
If a user types in your address directly, does that show strong engagement? Probably. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that this activity cannot be measured. It’s just how the web works. If a marketer is making decisions based on “Users who typed in our address directly,” they are making decisions based on a mistaken assumption about what “Direct” traffic means.
Google’s definition of “Direct” traffic is unambiguous:
“A session is processed as direct traffic when no information about the referral source is available”
Why then, have so many vendors/consultants/analysts claimed that “Direct” traffic can be explained by users who type in addresses directly? If I had to guess it’s that a simple answer has felt more comforting than the cold truth which is that “Direct” traffic is just “Unknown” traffic.
Here are some examples of why traffic may appear as “Direct”. Note that none of these include “Typing in your address” or “Bookmarking your website”:
- Traffic moves from a secure (HTTPS) website to an unsecure (HTTP) website
- Traffic from emails that link to your website without UTM codes
- Traffic from offline documents that link to your website without UTM codes
- Traffic from apps that link to your website without UTM codes
- Referral exclusions for external websites
- Referral exclusions for your own websites when an analytics tag may be missing
- Session timeout before a page reload
- Server redirects that drop the UTM codes
While I can’t claim to know how often users type in a client’s website address directly, I do know that the issues listed above are very prevalent. I know because I encounter at least a couple of these issues with every client I on-board.
The silver lining is thus: If more than ~15% of your traffic is coming from “Direct”, you likely have configuration issues. Why is this good news? Configuration issues can be fixed! When you fix an issue, you can measure resulting changes in “Direct” traffic. These fixes move a portion of your traffic from the “Unknown” into the “Known”.