Excellent Analytics Tip #18: Make Love To Your Direct Traffic

Incomplete Make love? Direct Traffic? Really?

I am not kidding. Direct traffic contains visitors that proactively seek you out, everyone else you have to "beg" to show up on your site!

Yet this question seems to bedevil a lot of people:

What the heck is Direct Traffic?

As if that was not sad enough, even people who do know what the definition of Direct traffic is rarely focus on it or work hard to tease out the opportunity that exists in Direct traffic.

I love analyzing Direct traffic because it contains a valuable set of visitors who deserve more love than we currently give them.

I want you to be just as excited.

So let's look at the definition, to make sure we understand, at least on paper, what this traffic is supposed to be. We'll also look at the challenges that exist in ensuring we are looking at the real unpolluted Direct traffic.

Definition.

Here is the simplest and cleanest definition:

Direct traffic contains all Visits to your website where in people arrived at your site directly (by typing the url) or via a bookmark.

Direct traffic is hence not traffic that results from people clicking on links on other sites to your site (that's referring urls traffic), it is not traffic that comes to your site by clicking on ads (that's Other in Google Analytics or Campaigns in other tools), it is not people who come from search engines (that is Search or Organic or PPC traffic).

 direct traffic visitor metrics performance

The reason Direct traffic is a beloved of mine is that it represents (checkout the sweet contextual – red and green – numbers above):

    1. People who are your existing customers / past purchasers, they'll type url and come to the site or via bookmarks.

    2. People familiar with your brand. They need a solution and your name pops up into their head and they type.

    3. People driven by word of mouth. Someone recommends your business / solution to someone else and boom they show up at the site. Uninvited, but we love them!

    4. People driven by your offline campaigns. Saw an ad on TV, heard one on radio, saw a billboard and were motivated enough to typed the url and show up.

    [If you were really smart you would use campaign tagged vanity url so you can segment them!]

    5. [Remember the part below, but.] Free, non-campaign, traffic.

In a nutshell these are people show up without invitation (email, display, social campaigns) or they are people who already know you. There is an extra motivation connected to their visit which causes them to type your url of find the bookmark they made.

That little bit of extra intent, when compared to other visitor segments, is the reason that conversion numbers  (on ecommerce or non-ecommerce sites) for clean direct traffic usually look like these. . . .

direct traffic goal conversionsThe only goal that is red is supposed to be red (fewer registrations from people who already know you is not unusual right?).

Now you'll agree when I say your job is to be extra sweet to them?

Segment them in your data, the delightful numbers you see in your KPI's will show you why.

So if Direct traffic is so important and often the metrics show very positive results then why don't we all obsess about it a lot more?

broken chain

The Problem: Unfortunately. . . You!

Most website tag and campaign tracking implementations are poor (to put it charitably). This is always disappointing but it is particularly harmful to Direct traffic.

You see if you don't implement your links properly the person shows up to your site without any tracking parameters and thus fail to help your web analytics tool to put that visitor in the right source bucket.

Typically Direct traffic also contains all the Visits that originated from improperly tagged campaigns, untagged campaigns and problems with your JavaScript tag. I am sitting in a puddle of tears as I write this, that is how often Direct traffic is polluted and that is how painful (and profoundly sad) this is.

Here is a simple example:

You are the Acquisition manager for a company called Omniture.

You have purchased banner ads in various Android applications using AdMob to target high value analytics decision makers. You goal is to get people to buy your Discover data warehouse product.

You are using Google Analytics to track all you display campaigns.

The proper way to link your banner to your Discover2 website is:

    omniture.com/discover2awesoemness/?utm_source=nytimes_mobile_homepage&utm_medium=masthead_banner
    &utm_content=188_92&utm_campaign=affluent_readers

You actually use this url:

    omniture.com/discover2awesoemness/

Guess where this category will be categorized?

Direct.

:(

You see mobile applications don't send a referrer and it will look like all of a sudden you got very high converting Direct traffic.

With a simple stone you've killed two beautiful birds:

    > The direct traffic is polluted and you'll never be able to focus on finding real insights for actual valuable lovely people who are seeking you out directly.

    > Google Analytics will show that your mobile campaigns with AdMob stink. Of course that's not true, but you'll have no way of knowing that.

Not a great situation right?

Oh and what do you think is happening to the trackability of all your shortened urls in Social Media that you are not tagging with campaign parameters? 78% of people consume Facebook and Twitter content via applications and unless you use campaign parameters all that traffic is sitting in Direct. So sad.

Result?

Direct traffic is a fantastic segment to analyze because it contains desirable Visitors and yet because it is often polluted (due to our own inability to implement web analytics tools correctly).

Let's aim to fix this because it is too important not to.

no problems only solutions

. Why Does Direct Traffic Get Polluted / Mistakes You Should Avoid:

The good and the bad are all mixed in, and it is your job to ensure that that is not happening inside your web analytics data.

Here are the main reasons traffic that should not be Direct ends up there, try, please please pretty please, to ensure this is not happening to you:

1. Missing web analytics tag from landing pages

    Perhaps the most common source of traffic being miscategorized.

    Your urls are all tagged correctly with campaign parameters, or maybe people are just coming to from sites that link to you.

    They land on a page that is missing the web analytics tag.

    They click on a link on the landing page to go deeper into the site.

    Guess what's the traffic source for this traffic?

    Direct.

    So sad.

    You worked so hard to get that referring link / execute the campaign. Now not only do you not get rewarded for that work. you actually messed up your direct traffic.

    Don't be that person.

    Go purchase WASP from iPerceptions or an account with ObservePoint and address the cheapest problem to fix in Web Analytics. If you are a little bit tech savvy then go get REL Software's Web Link Validator, it's pretty good.

2. Untagged campaigns (search, email, display, social media etc)

    This is perhaps the second biggest reason data in web analytics ends up in wrong places.

    In case of untagged emails (to people who are using Outlook, Thunderbird etc) and mobile ads and mobile application links (think of all those Twitter / Facebook apps) and Adobe AIR applications (like my beloved NY Times Reader) and in rare cases where people are clicking on links in PDF documents etc, the data ends up in Direct (no referrer).

    In case of untagged display campaigns usually there is a referrer so it will end up there rather than in Campaigns were you want it.

    In case of untagged paid search campaigns it usually ends up in organic search data.

    On behalf of your company you are spending precious budget on acquisition, not ensuring your campaigns are tagged properly is near criminal behavior. Don't be that person. Tag.

    Oh one more thing.. if you are practicing bigamy and have two tools, say Google Analytics and Adobe's Site Catalyst you better remember to have campaign parameters for both GA and SC because they use different parameters for campaigns. Whichever one you forget to tag for will show your campaign traffic as Direct!

    If you want to track the campaign in the first part of this post with both Google Analytics AND Omniture the url would look like this, as an example:

      omniture.com/discover2awesoemness/?utm_source=nytimes_mobile_homepage&utm_medium=masthead_banner
      &utm_content=188_92&utm_campaign=affluent_readers
      &s_scid=TC-10013-3159426121-e-361634984

    See both set's of campaign parameters? You don't do that one of them is wrong. Not so shiny to practice bigamy is it?

3. Improperly tagged campaign parameters / site tags

    This one is probably not that hard to understand.

    Instead of utm_source and s_scid you use utm-source or s-scid and you are. how to say this politely. screwed.

    In both cases your two (or one) web analytics tool will most likely ignore the improper parameters and throw the traffic where it does not belong and mess up your ROI analysis.

    Auditing your campaign tracking before they go live is a great idea. Do this at the very minimum for the 20% of the campaign that are responsible for 80% of your traffic / revenue.

    If you use Google Analytics grab the Google Analytics Tracking Code Debugger. See this blog post for troubleshooting guide & detailed instructions: Debug Your Tracking Code.

    Omniture, WebTrends, CoreMetrics, Unica all come with such debuggers. I can't link to them as location are not public (or you need to pay first!). Please reach out to your Account Managers to get access, just in case you don't already have them. Debug!

    [Update:]

    Ben Gaines from Adobe/Omniture was kind enough to share that a free debugger is available to Omniture clients. Log into the Knowledge Base and look for KB ID 534 and you are set! But here's something cooler. The debugger is actually a bookmarklet and here it is:

    Create a bookmark in your browser. Copy the code in the above text file. Click edit on your bookmark. Paste the code where the Link is. Go to any page on your site with Site Catalyst. Click on the bookmarklet and bathe in bugs! :)

    [/Update]

    4. Improperly coded redirects / vanity urls etc

      Another silly issue that causes problems with direct traffic.

      When you get a email or a mobile campaign, and keep a close eye on the url window, you'll notice the click goes to your campaign solution provider and is then redirected to your site.

      That's one example of a redirect. We use redirects / vanity urls in our multi-channel campaigns, in our display or search campaigns or even just for the heck of it.

      That is not an issue.

      Make sure they are permanent, 301, redirects. The delicious type of redirects that dutifully pass the referrer string to the landing page telling your web analytics provider where the person originally came from.

      You use temporary, 302, redirects and the referrer never gets passed on. Depending on how the redirect server is configured either the click looks like it came from the redirect server or with a blank referrer (direct!).

    5. Really heavy tag at the bottom of the page (switch to Async!)

      A smaller problem for normal sites with just text and some images, but a huge problem for fat ugly flash heavy websites (especially the, still annoying, ones with flash intros).

      It takes such a long time to load the flash file itself that person might have clicked skip intro or some other link on the page well before the fat flash file loads or before the web analytics JavaScript tag loads.

      The data tracking behavior is exactly as if issue #1 above existed, no tracking code on the landing page.

      I would recommend putting the tag in the header, except that is the selfish lover strategy and no one likes a selfish lover.

      Make your pages as lean as you can, especially campaign landing pages. Keep the tag in the footer, you don't want the page to hang because of issues at your analytics provider.

      If you use Google Analytics you are in a little bit of luck. Switch to the magical GA Async Code. It goes in the header, captures data without ever hampering your page loading and as if that were not enough is leaner and meaner.

      One of these days all web analytics vendors will migrate to the Asynchronous making the Internet a faster place to live in.

    6. Corner cases causing traffic to end up in Direct.

    Here are some reasons that don't happen a lot but you should be aware of:

      ~ Links encoded in JavaScript clicked in some browsers will send a null referrer (i.e put traffic into Direct). Often times you can't help his because you don't have control over people linking to you can do whatever they want. But do check that your campaigns in Facebook or Yahoo or other places are not using this method.

      ~ [Update, via Alec Cochrane:] https to http and vice a versa also won't have referrers passed due to (good) security reasons. So if possible make sure you put campaign tracking codes in links from https pages to ensure those visits don't end up in direct. For this you would have to know this is happening and then be able to find the person who will oblige you by changing the link. Tough to do but when you can do it!

      ~ Some smart folks will make changes to their browser configurations that cause referrers not to be passed. Happens in a tiny minority of cases.

      ~ This might impact only some tools but check with your vendor how this scenario is credited. . .

      First visit: From a campaign (search, referring url, social, display, whatever).

      Second visit: Direct to the site.

      If you are using Google Analytics then that second visit will still be "credited" to the campaign (non-direct) because the _utmz cookie will be present in the browser.

      In your web analytics tool that might not be the cause. Please check with your vendor.

      ~ Multi-domain / sub-domain "unique" web analytics implementations across many websites. With any tool these are really hard to do right, and really easy to do wrong. If you have one of these polka dotted puppies then get your expensive Consultant to triple check the code and cookie customizations with a special eye on Direct traffic.

      ~ [Update, via Pritesh Patel:] You could also have polluted Direct traffic if your entire company (hopefully of a good size!) has their home pages in browsers set as your company's website. This will clearly skew your direct traffic (and your bounce rates, after all they don't actually care about your site :)). You can easily use your tools admin settings to filter out all your internal IP's which would solve this issue.

      ~ [Update, via Deric Loh:] #1. iFrame: Whenever someone links to your site via an iFrame it is possible for them to code it in such a way that it does not pass referral data and the visit will look like Direct. We can do much about this but in case there are sources where you can avoid this issue or get it done properly then it is worth the effort.

      #2. Company Gateways: Some companies might have a security gateway which has been set up to strip the referrers from request calls. This of course is not great for your clean Direct traffic. It won't happen a lot of times and then limited to just one source. But it is something you certainly should be aware of as a cause.

    That's it. Six simple problems for you to take care of. : )

    All kidding aside know that you'll accomplish a major clean-up if you address the first three issues and then YMMV.

    Also know that it is totally worth it to get this data clean, the orange line below is Direct traffic conversion rate and the blue is overall conversion rate. . . .

    direct traffic goal conversion rate

    Not bad eh?

    You want to know who these people are.

    You want to know what you can learn from analyzing their geographic locations.

    You want to know their Visitor Loyalty and Visitor Recency profiles.

    You want to know what content they are consuming.

    You want to know what products they are purchasing.

    You want to know what the differences between their behavior on your site is from your other campaign traffic.

    You want to know if any of the spikes are correlated to you offline campaigns or catalogs you have sent out (and then establish causality between offline campaign calls to action and behavior by these people).

    You want to establish the value of these visitors and then pay special attention to them if they are of value to you.

    For the New York Times website I'll always be Direct traffic. I use a bookmark, I go to the site at least once a day, I click on Ads (I have nytimes.com on my adblock white-list!), I subscribe to the Times Reader, I am a big evangelist of their brand.

    But only if they care to ensure their Direct traffic is clean, and then analyze that traffic will they ever know that.

    If they are like every other company that obsesses with PPC and Yahoo! Banners and Facebook Display ads and Email campaigns etc etc then they'll never know that some of their best customers they should make happy are right under their nose.

    I know that the NY Times web analysis team is super sharp. Are you?

    In the small chance that you were not before I hope I have convinced you to truly bring the "make love" type of passion to this valuable, and usually large, segment of traffic to your site.

    Good luck!

    UPDATE: A clarification specific to Google Analytics:

    Every tool uses delightful sets of attribution rules when it comes to assigning visits or conversion to campaigns. To share with you how Google Analytics will attribute these things here are a couple of scenarios….

    Scenario 1:

      Visit 1: Came from SEO click on keyword "ASOS Fashion"
      A few days later…
      Visit 2: Came direct to the website

      In Google Analytics you will see this in your reports:

      Keyword "ASOS Fashion": Visits: 2
      Direct: Visits: 0

      In effect Google Analytics will "understate" direct visits. It is difficult to have a perfect scenario here, some people will vehemently make the case that GA is doing it right and that the Visit did come via the organic click first so second visit should be attributed to it. I am personally in the camp that that is sub-optimal and that because we can't read too much into anything (we just don't know what is influencing what) we should report keyword visits = 1 and direct visits =1. But at least you know what GA is reporting.

    Scenario 2:

      Visit 1: Direct to the site.
      Visit 2: Came from Affiliate Campaign click.
      Visit 3: Came direct to the site.

      In GA it will show:

      Direct: Visits: 1
      Affiliate Campaign: Visits: 2

      See how that works? Regardless of how you think it should be you now know how it is. : ) Make sure you keep this in mind as you analyze the GA reports.

      [My heartfelt thanks to David Williams for his help with a test for above cases.]

    This stuff is complicated right? Remember none of this takes anything away from the importance of direct traffic or how hard you have to work to make sure your reporting of it is clean (tips above) or that it is worth focusing on. Whatever tool you have, do all of the above!

    Ok your turn now.

    Do you obsess about Direct traffic just as much as I do? What insights have you found from you analysis? What methods have you deployed to ensure that your Direct traffic segment is as clean as possible? Do you also look at any "Direct" traffic to really long complicated url's on your site and instantly doubt that could be direct?

    Please share your experience / feedback / tips / critique via comments.

    Thanks.

    PS:
    Couple other related posts you might find interesting:

Comments

  1. 1

    Great post Avinash. Agree that Direct Traffic is sometimes not given the TLC is needs. Honestly, I am guilty of this sometimes.

    I recently did an anlysis of a new clients website and logged into their Google Analytics to start my analysis. I was shocked when I saw that the site was receiving 94% direct traffic. I assumed it was due to email campaigns with poor tag management and adwords campaigns not set up accordingly.

    I asked the client "Do you conduct email campaigns?" To which they answered…"No". So I then asked "What about PPC?"…they replied "Whats PPC?". "Redirects??"…"nope, we have not changed the site for 12 years"

    So what could be causing the 94% direct visits if they are not conducting any other form of online marketing?.

    Answer: The business employs 150+ people and each computer within the business (inc. laptops) had its homepage or start up screen set as the company website homepage!!!!!

    So, when each employee fires up the browser and the company homepage appears….classed as DIRECT VISIT!

    P.S – The company now has changed its start up page to Google.

  2. 2

    Hi Avinash,

    Great way of pointing out why you should ensure that you should put campaign codes on your links wherever possible otherwise you'll not just muck up any analysis of campaigns, but also other traffic sources!

    As an interesting tangent on the topic, I like talking to our brand marketers and brand PR about 'Brand visits'. That is visits who have either typed in the url (to become direct) or have searched in a search engine for your company name. This is, of course, complicated if your company name is a common phrase as well.

    Cheers,
    Alec

    PS – https to http and vice versa don't have referrers for security reasons, so make sure you put campaign codes on if you link from someone elses website to your own from an https page!

  3. 3

    Hey Avinash,

    Great post – Direct traffic has always been important to me, it provides the ticket to the conversations about offline campaign effectiveness and is a major HIPPO slayer. All the more reason to keep it clean and credible!

    All the best,

    Rob.

  4. 4

    Love it… Omniture using GA…

    Also, love the points on incorrect referrer/ad tagging. Great fodder for an analyst looking for love in IT to help tag up misbehaving pages. ;-)

    Regards,
    Garry

  5. 5
    Mark@ Make Them Click says:

    Avinash,

    Since you brought up polluted data, there's a whole area of polluted data you missed around direct traffic, and traffic sources as a whole.

    What I'm talking about is actually the reverse problem of what you've discussed, but it is still a polluted data issue.

    What we've noticed time after time is that if we send out an email campaign, our organic search traffic goes up, our cpc traffic goes up and our direct traffic goes up.

    And I mean all on the same day.

    Of course what's happening is that when people get our emails, instead of clicking the link in the email, they just go straight to the browser and

    i) type in the url directly or call up a bookmark

    ii) simply type the company name into address bar and wait till the search engine bring up the result then click on either the organic link or

    iii) click the paid branded link (thankfully both are at the top of the page.)

    It's nothing to do with improper tagging, and there's no way you can unsegment and re-segment them properly.

    It's just human nature, and you have to live with it and make allowances for it.

  6. 6
    Ted Smith says:

    Avinash,

    Fantastic post.

    Would love to hear more about best practices with site experiences for direct traffic. For example, disabling registration intercept promotions, or enabling special features that show the love…

    Thanks again,

    Ted

  7. 7
    Joe Teixeira says:

    Hi Avinash!

    First of all, it was really nice to see you again last week and chat with you for a bit. I promise to not "disappear" again from your comments on this blog! :)

    I think this is a great post to highlight the impact of one's offline or direct marketing campaign. I believe that we are all guilty of not paying too much attention to direct traffic (TRUE direct traffic) – myself included. We all take it for granted, but we need to be able to analyze it and optimize for it, just like any other marketing campaign.

    Just wanted to mention a quick technical note regarding direct traffic and Google Analytics: If, for example, one bookmarks a website after clicking on an AdWords ad, that user's next visit to the website will also be lumped in with the "cpc" medium category. There is a fraction of the population that is actually coming back to your website via a bookmark that Google Analytics will attribute the traffic to their original source. So – like anything in the Web Analytics world, it's not exactly perfect, but the data that you do in fact collect is more than good enough to make smart, actionable decisions from.

  8. 8

    Excellent Post!

    Highly relevant to marketers who are trying to leverage inbound marketing and social media.

    Derek
    CEO
    DMZ Interactive

  9. 9
    Joe Teixeira says:

    ….oops! Looks like I overlooked the part where you talk about campaign bookmarks in GA….sorry about that!

  10. 10
    Geeta says:

    Hello Avinash,

    I agree that marketers sometimes dont pay attention to Direct traffic as much as we should. This is an excellent post that makes me evaluate direct traffic all over again.

    On email marketing: There has been some talk in the email marketing circles of tracking emails better in GA. It would be fantastic if Google Analytics would give a beacon to track email opens. Just a thought.

    Can anyone throw some light on why most of the ESPs use 302 redirect on clicks and not 301?

  11. 11
    Lukas says:

    "They land on a page that is missing the web analytics tag.

    They click on a link on the landing page to go deeper into the site.

    Guess what's the traffic source for this traffic?

    Direct."

    Are you sure about this? I always thought that in this case, my own domain would show up as the traffic source.

  12. 12
    Sébastien Brodeur says:

    Lot of website open link to other websites using Javascript (window.open) When this happen, referring information at not pass along in the HTTP header. Disguising this traffic as direct.

    If this happen from a partner site, you could include campaign parameter to correct this. Or you could ask them to open the window to a redirecting page from their domain. You may not have the actual referring URL, but at least, the traffic would show as referring traffic from that domain.

  13. 13

    Amen! :-)

  14. 14
    Ben Gaines says:

    Hi Avinash,

    Great post, as always. I have been answering this question a bit lately myself, as the Marketing Channels reports in SiteCatalyst have a "Direct" bucket which a few people have tried to remove/ignore.

    In any case, just FYI, our Debugger requires neither login nor money to access! I won't post the bookmarklet URL here simply because it's long and full of JavaScript, but anyone can get it from our KB, and thereafter it can be used at any time, shared internally, etc.

    We also offer the DigitalPulse product for a more automated way to make sure that incorrect tagging isn't messing up your direct traffic analysis.

    Thanks again for dropping more wisdom upon us!

    Ben Gaines
    Product Manager
    Adobe Systems, Inc.

  15. 15
    mike says:

    What about the people who type your URL into google. I'm sure these would show up as organic, but they shouldn't they really be considered direct (they're just too lazy to click on the address bar to type in the URL). Is there a way to correct for this in GA?

  16. 16
    Tony Stocco says:

    Pritesh Patel (1st comment) mentioned a very common problem. You can change the default start page in the browser to Google, but that doesn't solve the problem. Typically, the employees will still type in the URL and bam! Direct visit.

    Avanish, would you agree that it's better to block the company IP address in the analytics software to stop this?

  17. 17
    Jules says:

    @Alec ( #2 ) makes a good point in his PS: https referrers to your http site show up as direct as well.

    (example: search from https://encrypted.google.com/ – small corner case)

    Also, I've noticed that searches in the location bar (on Firefox at least) use a hidden Google search + 302 redirect.
    Details, see http://forwardslash.nl/herkomst-stiekem-toch-via-google/

  18. 18
    Chris says:

    Hi Avinash,

    I love the comment about utilizing vanity URL with a query string for offline media campaigns. It's like pulling teeth around here to help people see the big picture sometime.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  19. 19
    Brian C says:

    Great post Avinash.

    In terms of prioritizing your efforts, do you generally focus on the direct "branded" traffic first? Or, the people who are discovering your site via a long-tail phrase that matches a product offering you sell. I've wrestled with the above decision before and almost always default to trying to improve the user experience of "non-branded" traffic first because I take the "branded" traffic for granted and expect them to have more patience for the business than the "non-branded" traffic. (terrible me!)

    @Tony, if the employees use the website as a resource – it may be a good idea to create two distinct profiles : 1) that includes only the traffic from the employees and 2) one that excludes the traffic from the employees. <3 Filters.

  20. 20
    Bjoern says:

    I like how you are insinuating that Omniture would use Google Analytics to track their discover campaigns.

    Bravo!

  21. 21
    JohnnyW says:

    Hi! Thanks for a wonderful series of blog posts (and books!). I have a question that I'm unable to get a simple clear answer to, and my apologies if it's already answered on your site. (If it is, maybe some kind soul could point me there.)

    We're using Google Analytics and are a bit confused about Google's definitions: As I understand it, "Visits" are the number of times your site has been visited by a particular browser (with a cookie). My problem is that Google further breaks this down as "Returning Visitors" and "New Visitors" — yes, that's right, VisitORS.

    Surely, they mean "Returning Visits" and "New Visits"? Both of these are added up to calculate the total number of Visits. Meaning a user can return several times throughout a day and increase the number of Visits, and therefore also the number of Returning Visits. I.e. the number of Returning Visitors has not increased, only the number of Visits.

    Thanks for anyone who can clarify Google's confusing terminology!

    - JohnnyW

  22. 22
    Aaron says:

    #11 – I believe you are correct. Kind of surprised that Avinash – who is an analytics evangelist – would make this statement – unless he wasn't referring to Google Analytics, but some other unnamed provider.

  23. 23
    Ty Snouffer says:

    Yeah, Direct is often one of those "just when you thought you had tracking entirely set up . . ." challenges.

    Many times what I see are correctly tagged campaign links for banners, Facebook sites, and SEM. However, that old standby email gets the short end of the stick.

    Usually the excuses are along the lines of:

    "But Ty, we can just use the referral domains of the email servers to tell where they come from."

    or

    "But Ty, our email provider will provide that data."

    In the former case, if you don't properly tag your email links you'll find you leave out recipients who use a mail app rather than web mail.

    In the latter case, you're introducing another data source that invariably will cause confusion when comparing it to your web analytics tool. Also, the email vendors do a great job of reporting on email-specific measures (open rate, CTR, etc.) but not so much on the site side measures. Both are important but don't assume one is the same as the other!

    I love analyzing Direct traffic! More so when I am confident those visitors are meeting the definition you mentioned at the beginning of the post.

    Thanks!

    -Ty

  24. 24
    Kalani says:

    Very interesting stuff. I didn't realize all of those factors could muddy the "direct" category– must do some research to see if we're making any mistakes.

    At my ecommerce company, we've actually seen a noticeable decline in direct visits over the past year or so, because even our loyal and dedicated customers have shifted to sharing and clicking on links through social networking much more than they ever used to. And what we're seeing is that it's not necessarily a bad thing– people are just as likely to buy something specific recommended by a friend or by us on Facebook than they are after typing our URL in and just browsing the site for something new. But we might be an edge case, because brand loyalty is extremely high and we cater to a demographic that is shifting its Internet behavior from typing URLs to interacting with the web as a whole primarily from their social network homes.

  25. 25

    Hey Avinash,

    Another source of direct visits is from running AB experiments on a landing page. If the visitor is placed in B page group, the redirect from A to B happens before the web analytics tracking code executes and page B will show a direct visit.

    I also think that if you use the omni bar in Chrome to do a Google search and the result is your domain name, and you then click on it to go directly to your site, this will show as a direct visit. Not unexpected of course, but just an example of Chrome "helping" you do direct type-ins.

  26. 26
    Josh Braaten says:

    Hi Avinash,
    I really dig the post you've written here because I've constantly seen Twitter traffic underreported as either direct or referring from a web client (e.g., Hootsuite).

    I noticed though that you didn't put campaign parameters around your tweet yesterday that linked to this post:

    http://twitter.com/avinash/status/25037288376

    Given your post, I would assume that your direct/Twitter traffic has overlapped a bit as a result. Is there a reason you didn't put campaign parameters around it?

  27. 27
    Andrew Blank says:

    I was just reading about IE9 jump lists, which seem really neat (http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/gg131029.aspx). Firefox could do well to add this feature.

    I assume pinned sites would register as direct traffic as it is a form of bookmark, but I wonder if it would ever be worth it to attach a campaign code to the list URL's to compare "regular" direct traffic to site pinners. Is it reasonable to see if site pinners have a higher return rate, order rate, email sign up, aov, etc.? Or does this simply muddy the water?

  28. 28
    tonyfelice says:

    Something interesting that I've found as a side-effect of understanding the impact of Google Instant that I wanted to share…

    I was measuring how people perform Google searches, whether the Google site, browser search box, or directly into the address bar.

    I noticed that address bar searches from Firefox (specifically) that contain certain branded terms have been triggering a 'feeling lucky' search, and the scope of the branded terms affected has been gradually widening for the last two weeks.

    The issue is that these 'luckies' are showing up as DIRECT.

    Depending on the brand, of course, the keyword entered in the address bar may as well count as direct, but one can imagine a case where that behavior would not be so negligible.

    I would rather know exactly how a visitor arrived.

  29. 29
    nic says:

    Hi Avinash,

    besides redirects I often encounter landing page URLs with a wrong syntax:

    http://www.landingpage.com/?param1=value1?param2=value2

    Now imagine either param1 or 2 being the campaign parameter:-)

    Using a debugger is great, but too technical for some people.
    Clicking and checking in the WA tool afterwards can indicate problems to everyone.

    so long
    nic

  30. 30

    Pritesh: Thanks for sharing this excellent tip, it does happen in more companies than would be optimal. I'll add this to my recommendation #6 as another thing to watch out for.

    Alec: It is pretty hard to discern which brand visits are "url typing" and which ones are genuine search (and then attempt to bucket the former into direct). Life is hard for us Analysts. :)

    Thanks for highlighting the https to http issue, totally forgot that one. I'll add it as a point under item 6 in my list.

    Garry / Bjoern: I am just trying to have some fun there.

    But it is also the case that it I know the intricacies of GA a bit better than the intricacies of Site Catalyst. This means using GA as an example of tracking is easier for me.

    So there is a practical reason as well.

    Mark: You are right that that is certainly an issue for some people. That is precisely the reason the #1 link in the PS part of the post is the one about "unsuspected correlations". Please check out that post for some techniques that might help identify this important segment of traffic.

    Ted: Once you can isolate the real direct traffic then of course you have to deliver value, react to them in a differentiated manner. How you do that will depend on what each business is, but I encourage people to read the examples in your comment – all of which are wonderful!

    Geeta: At the moment, perhaps due to history, what happens from the time of email leaving you, or your provider, to getting to your target (customer/prospect) is tracked by email campaign providers. What happens once people click in the email to your website is done by web analytics tools. It is just the way things are, perhaps it will change some day.

    But it is important to know that these two parties, email campaign provider and WA tools, do work together pretty well. Tools like mailchimp and contactmail and exacttarget and so many more integrate with Google Analytics and Omniture and WebTrends and everyone else.

    So when you choose your email provider choose one that has this integration and you'll have the end to end view. And remember to ensure all the links in the email are tagged with tracking parameters for the WA tool you use.

    Lukas: This is a often misunderstood issue. In some tools landing on a non-tagged page and clicking to a tagged page will show that Visit as a "self-referrer". But in many other tools, including popular ones, that "self-referrer" will be ignored and the visit will be put in Direct (for example in Google Analytics).

    So you should check with your vendor to see what is happening and then adapt your analysis.

    Either way ensuring all landing pages are tagged is a lovely gift you can give yourself. :)

    Tony: Yes, you can update your web analytics tool to recognize your internal ip addresses and discard them. This is a 30 second process.

    But I have always maintained that I would much rather that you and I and everyone else worry a lot more about the core problem behind your employees skewing your numbers: You don't have enough real Visitors!

    My recommendation: Focus on attracting more traffic, focus on campaigns, focus on a better/different product, focus on SEO, focus on…. so many other things. If you have lots of visitors and a healthy business then internal visits become a minor ignorable nuisance. :)

    Ben: Thanks for sharing the tip on the Omniture Debugger. I have updated the post with the Omniture code so people can quickly implement the bookmarklet and quickly if their site catalyst code is behaving the way they expect it to.

    -Avinash.

  31. 31

    Mike: It is really simple, create an Advanced Segment that combines Direct traffic source AND the keywords from Google that have your url in it. Boom! Real direct traffic. :)

    Each business will decide something different as to if the url typers are "lazy" or "direct" or "search referrals". But whatever you decide you have Advanced Segmentation to help you look at the data the way it makes sense for you.

    And remember in Google Analytics (and a small number of other tools) data in Advanced Segments also applies to historical data without you having to update the javascript tag (like in some tools) or paying for reprocessing data (like in some tools). So segment away!

    Brian: The case you are describing is Search and not Direct right? If so…

    It is hard to decide between Branded and Non-Branded search traffic mostly because it is hard to know if the Branded queries are by existing customers or just "down in the last steps of the sales funnel" prospects.

    I have made that decision based on historical value of each segment (looking at macro / micro conversions) – this just takes applying a couple segments to your goals reports. The other factor I use is to figure out what the business is currently prioritizing, sometimes there is a concerted effort to get more people into the top of the funnel (non-branded typically) and at other times we are just trying to improve the bottom of the funnel outcomes (typically via brand traffic) in which case that's an area to focus on.

    Obvious ideas, but I hope they are of some value.

    Jhonny: These are fairly standard terms and common in most tools. There is a simple way to think about this.

    Visit: This is a session. It represents a series of clicks during one visit by a person.

    Visitor: This is a close approximation of a person (or said better a person who is using a specific browser). They are tracking using an anonymous cookie.

    Returning Visitor: Is a session on your site by a Visitor who has visited your site before.

    New Visitor: Is a session on your site by a Visitor who has never visited your site.

    Thinks of New and Returning as segments you are applying on your Visits data. How many Visits were by Visitors who had already been on my site? How many Visits were by people who had never visited before?

    If it helps you think of them as Returning Visits and New Visits that is ok, use it. But note that you are 1. segmenting and 2. classifying the people and hence perhaps the WA tools went with the term Visitor.

    Kalani: Thanks for sharing your use case. It is certainly a good one.

    Ideally you want the loyal or valuable customers that you have to have the kind of brand connection that they'll come directly to you, rather than waiting to see a link on a social site and be prompted to visit the site. So some amount of those type of customers are optimal. Is that number 15% or 30% or whatever depends on a number of factors (including as you case a unique type of loyalty).

    But I am old school, even if I have 26k followers on twitter. I want a healthy chunk of direct traffic!

    Michael: Good point on A/B tests, depending on the tool it is possible that for non-control versions the visit might get classified as Direct. Hopefully it does not happen often enough to cause major issues (so says the person who keeps championing constant testing & experimenting!).

    Great point on the omni bar in Chrome. It is less that you are doing a search and more that Google is doing the search and trying to find the best answer from your history or Google search (organic). Perhaps we can add this in the "win" column for Direct as in this case Chrome is causing the data in the WA tool to be cleaner (though of course that is not why it is doing what it does, it's just purely for better user experience).

    Josh: Why not? Would it not be great to look at the report for a post on Direct Traffic and see lots of Direct traffic! : )

    The serious reason that particular link was not tagged is that I am experimenting with some advanced pre-alpha features on three url shortners (awe.sm, goog.gl and my bitly custom domain, zqi.me). I just happened to use goo.gl because I was testing something else.

    Andrew: Great idea. But I am not sure that we'll have the capacity to figure out how to add the parameters when people pin sites. At least based on my reading of how it would work. Maybe we can dynamically take everyone who comes directly to our site and then add tracking parameters to all their urls (utmsoruce=direct) and then in case they bookmark the site or pin it then the tracking parameters will go with them. Might be cumbersome.

    But both you and Michael point out how browsers are advancing and becoming smarter (and more complex behind the scene). As analytics professionals we have to constantly keep an eye out on these things to understand what the impact might be on our data, direct or in other buckets.

    And what is up with that Google Instant? : )

    Nic: That is another mistake people make in the list of problems people have tagging their campaigns right.

    You are correct that this is a technical issue that many people don't pay attention to or detect. But then that is why we have consultants out there to help address this issue. It is worth 10x to pay a consultant the required fees to ensure the tagging and tracking is implemented correctly.

    -Avinash.

  32. 32
    JohnnyW says:

    Thanks so much for your reply, Avinash, it makes a little bit more sense now. It still baffles me why they would choose "Visitor" as a name to describe a segment of "Visits".

    As you say…

    A visit = Unique session.

    A visitor = Unique user/browser.

    So it seems confusing to me that "Returning Visitor" should mean "unique _session_ by a visitor who has been on your site before".

    Thanks for clarifying my understanding of the term, though. It's much appreciated.

  33. 33
    Chris Leone says:

    Thanks for putting some needed focus on the value of direct traffic, Avinash.

    One of my favorite new advanced segments is something I call "brand aware" traffic. It simply contains Direct traffic and all branded search. The reason for this is people like to type the website address in a search engine (derr) OR they type the brand into a search engine versus go through the hassle of typing ".com" (and let's be honest, many of us are guilty of typing 'Facebook' into Google instead of typing the web address or even clicking a bookmark). I don't want to take this as far as using a replace filter to turn branded search engine traffic into direct traffic, but I like slicing and dicing it using advanced segments.

    The other thing I like about having a brand aware traffic is it helps puts some context around my SEO traffic. For example, I could have a month where my targeted phrases' rankings improve nicely, but traffic remained flat or even fell! Then I'll go back and look at brand aware traffic and see that it fell significantly more over the same period. It's not a comprehensive explanation, but if traffic from people aware of our brand fell, it might give some insight into demand over that period and could explain why SEO traffic didn't increase despite better rankings.

    Two stories on inflated direct traffic:

    We have a client that didn't take into account the subdomain visitors go through to convert into leads. As a result, all converting traffic was defaulted to direct traffic! This made it very difficult to analyze which keywords and campaign were effective when we first came on board. For the amount they spend on PPC, this "infertile" data was devastating.

    Another client made another simple mistake so all of their ecommerce traffic was reported as coming from direct. So much money spent on a new site, SEO and PPC and they couldn't measure what channels were most effective.

    For this reason I put so much emphasis on taking your time and being super, super thorough when setting up a GA account. Simple oversights can set you way back!

  34. 34
    Max says:

    Hey Avinash,

    Great post, especially since I have the problem that the direct traffic on our homepage suddenly spiked and I need to find out why.

    I checked all the possibilities, the only one I couldn't check for every page is, if the GATC is properly implemented (we have a lot pages).

    What I detected is this:
    - Direct traffic went from 30% to 45 %
    - Search traffic went from 55% to 30%
    - New visits went from 40% to 60%
    - Returning Visits went from 60% to 40%

    Does enybody have a clue in which I should investigate? I see all those crazy metric changes and can't explain how that happened (there was no big campaign or such).

    I am very thankful for every idea.

    Cheers,
    Max

  35. 35

    Max: It is really hard to make general guesses based on the data below. You should consider doing some checks outlined in the post.

    If I had to hazard a guess: New campaigns landing on pages with no tags. Or your search campaign tags are broken (if you do lots of paid search) – though this should not impact the new visits going up and returning going down because no JS tags / no campaign tags don't impact existing cookies.

    Perhaps others on this thread could add other ideas for you. But remember none of us know your business and problems like you do! : )

    -Avinash.

  36. 36

    @Max: Can you give us the raw numbers over the two time periods?

    The % shifts could mean anything, either one variable going up or the other down!

    Thanks,

    Rob.

  37. 37

    Max: here's my hunch. It looks to me as if you HAD a reasonably high proportion of returning visits, many of them from search. If these returning visitors had been using type-ins or bookmarks for their return visits, those would have been credited to the last campaign source = search.

    If, for some reason, your site managed to reset the tracking cookies so that the connection with previous visits was lost, this same chunk of users would be reported as 'new' not returning and their visit would be attributed to its actual source 'direct' not search.

    Can you think of any changes to the site tracking which might have taken place lately? Have you, for example, made changes to cross-domain tracking or done anything else which may have changed the setting of the domain in GA. I've had painful experience of that causing this kind of trouble.

    This is only a first guess, of course. I expect there will be plenty of other suggestions from people who know a lot more than I do.

  38. 38
    Max says:

    Thanks for your guesses.

    Avinash:
    my first shot were also the Landing pages.
    I checked my major LP and found all GATC's implemented correctly.
    Our AdWords campaigns don't really have a huge impact.

    Rob:
    Here are the numbers (per day value in one day grab sample, same weekday in both periods)

    "Normal metrics period":
    - Direct: 10,135
    - Referring 4400
    - Search: 18,000

    - New: 13,500
    - Returning: 19,400

    "Weird metrics period":
    - Direct: 17,018
    - Referring 4,400
    - Search: 14,700

    - New: 22,700
    - Returning: 13,500

    Thanks,
    Max

  39. 39
    tonyfelice says:

    @Max – the first place I would go is the place where you couldn't – ensure proper GATC. There is a great tool called WASP (not trying to be promotional, but I actually learned of it from reading this blog). I highly recommend that you bark up that tree.

    That said, the numbers you're describing would make a lot more sense alongside absolute uniques for the time periods you're evaluating. If you're seeing a corellary jump in visitors, there's a chance that you've gotten a bit of press that you're unaware of.

  40. 40
    Max says:

    Tim:

    That approach sounds really interesting. I'll investigate in this one with our web guys. I realized that some URLs (with huge impact) are handled differently in GA now:

    Instead of showing up as quicklinks http://www.url.de/path?orig_ql=/quicklink (1)

    they show up as:
    http://www.url.com/quicklink (2)

    –> GA thinks these are new URLs: Pageviews for (1) dropped to zero and for (2) took over.

    BUT this happened two days after the metrics for visitor sources and types shiftet.

    I'm confused.

    Cheers,
    Max

  41. 41
    tonyfelice says:

    @Max – I suppose we hit 'send' at nearly the same instant…

    On the one hand, it's incredibly refreshing to know that there are people that are analyzing traffic daily.

    On the other, it's important to keep in mind that larger sample sizes are more likely to reveal trends than day-to-day measurements.

    And perhaps I'm too skeptical, but I find it odd that, aside from the direct, all of your numbers show an even hundred. ;-)

  42. 42
    LCastro says:

    Thank you Avinash, your article is elaborated and well written although I still need to learn the terminology to fully understand and take advantage of what you teach here.

  43. 43

    Great post.

    I think the issue with Direct Traffic is how you make it actionable as so much of direct traffic is in the hands of the visitor and cannot be controlled unlike search etc. This I think creates an aura for marketers where they feel this channel is not one that they can impact unlike search traffic for example. I do agree that ensuring the data is fully clean is the first step but what interests me more is how to create actionable optimisation programmes from direct visitors.

    For me the big opportunities lie in two areas:

    1) Using annotations to identify the halo effect from your marketing initiatives. Direct traffic is all about context. By being focused on annotating all marketing activity its possible to identify patters e.g. offline (vanity URL's are great but not always viable OR used by customers!), online advertising campaigns as post impression visitors will show as direct etc. By taking this approach you can start to build associations and add another KPI behind each campaign – increase in direct traffic!

    2) Using tools such as BTBuckets to actually create custom content based upon direct traffic to reward these visitors who regularly come to your site. How about a survey to your direct traffic to ask them what makes them return or run a promo voucher to direct visitors that have returned to your site x times in a given period.

    3) Identify brand advocates by profiling your direct traffic and building a direct relationship with your core customer base. Access to new product beta's, exclusive content.

    Would be great to see what other ideas people have about actionable programmes to your direct traffic….

    Thanks
    Paul

  44. 44
    Dhiraj says:

    Thanks for sharing such a complex topic in simple way, specially i love the discussion…d

  45. 45
    Miguel says:

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks! I was wondering if you have any good resources regarding link tagging and it's impact on SEO and link juice flow? I have heard of this hack for GA that allows you to remove the parameters in GA tracking codes and replace them with search engine friendliness. But it would be great to hear from the master (that's you) on this.

  46. 46

    Direct Traffic can be so polluted that I always hesitate to refer to it.

    Also, add the trend of people now using Google in a navigational way, i.e. typing the brand they know (and often the actual URL) in the search field instead of the browser URL field, and we got this "branded" trafic all skewed up. More and more people do this, knowing that they won't get an error message due to a typo (or simply for plain rapidity), since Google is hyper efficient and will being them to the site they already know. They don't mind the extra click, contrary to marketers' cliché. Is this really search then? I don't think so. I usually suggest to put visits from heavily branded searches into the direct category.

  47. 47

    Jacques: In their comments several people have pointed out the issue of using a search engine as a method of navigation. The way they are dealing with it is to simply segment: clean direct + search engine queries with company url + (possibly) all the "brand" queries.

    The nice thing with Advanced Segmentation in Google Analytics, Yahoo! Web Analytics is that one can accomplish this in just a few seconds (including applying it to historical data) on the fly with no changes to tags or torture.

    I agree that that is the way to go.

    I do urge a little bit of caution on implying that the third bucket (all brand queries on a search engine) are necessarily Direct. I have seen that in a few cases, but more often than not they are not "direct" (as defined in my post).

    Hence I would advice incremental analysis of new and returning visitor segments for brand search traffic, analysis of the landing page (always a great clue of intent) and content consumption.

    An Analysis Ninja would take maybe a couple of hours to do that and insights from that analysis can be used to decide if brand serarch queries belong to Direct or not.

    Thanks so much for the feedback.

    Miguel: You can checkout the blog post on the Google Webmaster Central blog to learn about canonical, it provides more context around getting control of your url.

    + Webmaster Central: Specify your canonical

    Also remember to log into your Webmaster Tools account to specify for Google what's the right url structure for you.

    -Avinash.

  48. 48
    emma says:

    Great post!

    Would you recommend WASP? I have had some troubles with it, but i'm not sure if it's perhaps a bad install

    Thanks
    -Emma

  49. 49
    George says:

    Thanks for sharing this descriptive post. And the article has proved that the number of direct traffic can clearly indicate your offline influence.

  50. 50
    B Weiss says:

    I'd add that your marketing attribution strategy (30 day-last click, etc.) is also going to influence how you see direct traffic in your analytics tool. Things can get particularly muddy if you're using a linear or shared attribution model.

    So, you can be doing everything right in terms of tagging, redirects, etc. But your very analytics implementation is going to heavily affect the way you see "direct" traffic.

    Wonderful post, per usual

  51. 51
    Deric Loh says:

    "Direct traffic" seems so direct but not so – especially with how customers might get came through to a nonline brand today. :)

    Something to look into whenever taking over a new web analytics account(the $$$ making or losing traffic source / channel for a business!)

    Ok sharing and adding onto the awesome list of "Direct Traffic":

    iFrame
    Something which we can't really control at times, whenever someone links to your site content via iFrame and had code it to not pass the referral data source.

    Company Gateway (striping referrals)
    Companies might have a security gateway which had been set up to strip referrals from requests
    calls(incidentally at times !)

    eDMs (Individual links)
    Seen quite a number of cases whereby the individual links found on eDMs not properly tagged which leads to "direct" or even "referral" traffic source.

    Will share more when I encounter any potential misleading "Direct" traffic !

    Cheers,
    Deric

  52. 52

    Thanks for the post. Some very interesting ideas that I hadn't though about before.

    Now its back to the lab to see how our team can properly maximize the value of direct traffic…

  53. 53
    Christopher says:

    The title was very catchy (which can be half the battle for getting traffic!) and great info. Thanks

  54. 54
    Hans Husman says:

    I found your post right after this one very good. Got me understanding the general area more in a way to approach it (being what I never really get to).

    A question though regarding this issue – or related – would be given the direct traffic grows faster than say search traffic would it be a good thing to share Analytics data with Google apps as one can click in some thing to do.

    A suggestion for your blog would – might it exist – a easy to use step by step thing their you link down to the longer guides.

    Best regards
    Hans

  55. 55
    Aaron Toledo says:

    Very useful information…thanks as always!

    From my experience, one other problem area that can affect direct traffic is specific browsers and how they choose to handle http referrer headers.

    For example, Chromium has had issues handling such headers when right-clicking and opening windows in new tabs. Firefox doesn't seem to have this issue.

  56. 56
    Dave Renouf says:

    About Improperly tagged campaign parameters / site tags.

    Wasp has now this really quick way to figure this out, there is a report now call the "Explore" report that will allow you to see the tags on your site in a totally different way.

    Instead of going through massing listing of pages to figure out what pages are using what account number for example you can see what pages are tag with a specific variable/value.

    So if you want to see what UTMAC is used for example, you would select UTMAC in the list, this would give you all the account number used across your site and all the pages tag with each account #.

    Real fast real simple :-)

  57. 57

    Hello Avinash,

    Your blog is truly an inspiration. I am trying to get smarter but there are so many dimensions to it!

    I hope you'll be able to help with a quick query on the point of campaign redirects. We use a .htaccess-like file in our CMS to redirect from campaign URLs to landing pages tagged in our case for Yahoo! Analytics.

    For example, ordnancesurvey.co.uk/financialservices redirects to ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/business/sectors/bfi/index.html?cmp=fs1009

    Do I infer from your post that this is likely to be categorised wrongly in direct traffic?

    Many thanks in advance,

    Dominic

  58. 58

    Dominic: It depends on how you have set up the redirect. You want it set up as a permanent redirect. For your .htaccess file here is a post that has some guidance:

    tamingthebeast.net/articles3/spiders-301-redirect.htm

    Permanent redirects will pass the original referrer and your traffic won't show up as direct. And there will be world peace! :)

    -Avinash.

  59. 59
    Tony says:

    Hi Avinash,

    I am trying to pull some general stats together which relate to consumer behaviour on retail websites for instance:
    % of visitors that make a purchase from a retail sites
    % of visitors that abandon their basket
    % of visitors that make multiple transactions on retail sites
    % of visitors that only buy once from a site

    I've looked at a few sites Forresters etc but they want to charge me $500 to download their studies…..I dont think so! Do you know of any free sites that could garnish me with the generic info I'm looking for?

    Thanks

  60. 60

    Tony: I am afraid your only option is to pony up the $500 to Forrester et al to get this data.

    Before then though I encourage you to give some deep thought to what you might do with this information. Do as in action.

    We often tend to overvalue information such as this. :)

    Avinash.

  61. 61
    David says:

    Its nice to see that some people can explain such complex or hard to understand things in a plain and simple manner. (Especially for us non techie types…)

    Thanks again, P.S. Great Site…

  62. 62
    Assaf says:

    Hi Avinash,

    Great Post as always.

    I have a question – What's needs to be done with a download-able application which after installation redirects the user to a thank you page (the conversion page). Now all the conversions attributed to "Direct" traffic…instead of tagging the redirected url, is there any other way to make the conversion process more tight from step 1 (visitors enters the site via Google i.e.)

    Assaf

    • 63

      Assaf: As long as you control the link it is quite easy to add campaign tracking parameters to the link and ensure that it gets recorded as a campaign visit and not a Direct visit.

      So in your case, say if you use GA (though this works for any analytics tool), just add the campaign tracking parameters to the link, like so quickwin.co.il/?utm_source=mobile&utm_medium=mobileapp&utm_campaign=postinstallredirect. Now when people come to your site via the redirected url they get tagged with that campaign. You can segment these people into a unique bucket and measure their behavior on your site including their conversions.

      Avinash.

      • 64
        assaf says:

        Thanks for the reply Avinash.

        I thought maybe there is other solution rather than campaign tagging. :-)

        Assaf

  63. 65
    manuj says:

    Questions Related to Google Analytics (GA)

    In GA, if the URLs have not been tagged then it means we are getting polluted direct traffic.

    Will it also lead to show more overall traffic than received actually as the some parts of referral and search traffic is appearing in direct traffic which are also present in Referral and search traffic source segments?

    E.g. you have 100 visits, 70 organic, 20 direct, 10 referral, does this mean you actually had 90 visitors?

    Can organic traffic also pollute our direct traffic same as referal does?

    • 66

      Manuj: If you don't tag the urls used in your campaigns then one of two things will happen:

      1. If people come from normal websites from their normal computers they'll show up in your Referring URLs report. Your campaign and non-campaign traffic will be mixed together so you won't be able to measure effectiveness of your marketing spend.

      2. If people come via mobile applications or other scenarios where the referrer is not passed (and you did not use campaign tagging) then they'll show up in Direct.

      To your second question… if your tool (any tool, not just GA) shows 100 visits then that means 100 visits. The same person won't show up double counted in two buckets for the same visit. At least not if your web analytics tool vendor did their homework right.

      Avinash.

  64. 67
    Noelle Leahy says:

    Hi Avinash,

    Great post – I learned loads – this is new to me so I hope my question isn't too obvious:

    If I have a Facebook landing tab with a link to my website and I tag the URL, will referral data be passed to GA when the user clicks on the link from the Facebook mobile application?

    Thanks in advance,
    Noelle.

    • 68

      Noelle: In that case the referrer won't make it to the web browser and hence it won't make it to SiteCatalyst or WebTrends or Google Analytics.

      Hence, as mentioned in the post, the optimal strategy is to ensure that links in the FB landing page (or all your mobile app efforts) contain campaign tracking parameters. Those parameters will come through just fine via the mobile app and be reported accurately in your web analytics tool.

      Further more you can create a simple mobile segment in five seconds on your web analytics tool, apply that to your campaign reports and understand exactly how many people came via that Facebook landing tab using a mobile phone, mobile tablet or desktop computer.

      -Avinash.

  65. 71
    Noelle Leahy says:

    That's good news, thanks a lot for your help!

  66. 72
    Brooke says:

    Hmm, an old post but a good one still!

    I'm still trying to figure out why I have a surprisingly large amount of direct traffic. I would assume it's an error related to referral traffic, but the truth is, it's just a microsite that has yet to be campaigned. It also shouldn't be anything in #6 – I thought employees could be doing it but I have our IPs filtered.

    We haven't been posting about it (but just one link from our main website), so there's limits to where people can be coming from. Due to the nature of the microsite, it's mainly to grab organic searchers. But that's only 40% versus the 58% direct.

    Hm….

  67. 73
    Anirudh says:

    Hi Avinash,

    This was a very thorough walk through on direct traffic. Recently my direct traffic has grown quite a bit, sometimes up to 30% of overall traffic. I was just wondering from where it could be coming from.

    Thanks for clearing things up.

    Regards,

    Anirudh Bahadur

  68. 74
    Claire says:

    For those wondering why their direct traffic has spiked since September 2012 – it's because of iOS 6. More info here: searchengineland.com/ios-6-removes-all-google-search-referer-data-134560. Now direct / none is completely polluted with iPhone traffic and is effectively useless. Between this and (not provided), this has not been a good year for analytics.

    • 75
      Brooke says:

      …and there's already 200 million people using iOS 6!

    • 76

      Claire: It should be pretty easy to validate this for a website.

      The best option is to create an advanced segment for Direct Traffic and apply it to your Mobile OS standard report in Analytics.

      Or another simple way would be to go to Direct report in Traffic Sources, and then from the Advanced Segment just apply Mobile and look at the trend. Mobile is everyone, but from there it is easy to dig deeper into iOS6.

      So we first verify, then we worry. :)

      Avinash.

  69. 77
    Andrew Clark says:

    I'm just trying to clarify the 'issue' with direct traffic not writing over campaign tags in the analytics cookie – in line with [Scenario 1] outlined above.

    The MCA conversion paths in GA often show 'direct' as the last touch conversion, replacing any number of sources (paid search, referral etc.) in the process. My question is, how is this data being computed, if it can't be seen in the utmz when viewing the cookie.

    I can see merit in both arguments regarding keeping or replacing the source with a direct visit to the website, I'd just like to option of reporting on both within our custom LMS if given the chance.

    Thanks!

  70. 80
    Rob Anderson says:

    I am curious to understand how direct traffic can suddenly drop by 50% whilst other channels such as Referral remain fairly static.

    We recently migrated our site of approx 30,000 daily visits to a new platform. We created 301 redirects for all the existing URLs and we are confident that all of the new pages have GA tagging implemented correctly.

    However, literally the day after we migrated our site traffic dropped considerably and the biggest impact appears to have been direct traffic, where we lost 46% direct (60% from new visits with source of direct).

    If redirects are working correctly and tagging is implemented then old stored direct visit URLs should work and the user should still be acknowledged in GA – Correct?

    In which case, any ideas where we start looking to identify the loss? It's not a gradual decline – suggesting we put users off the new site and we got it wrong. They just vanish overnight.

    Your help greatly appreciated.

    Rob

    • 81

      Rob: If they vanish overnight then the problem is most likely in the tracking.

      It is possible there are a bunch of pages that don't have the tag.

      Or it is possible that your redirects are not working properly and what people see are 404s (hence no tracking).

      Or some such thing.

      I would go beyond direct etc and look at geo report to see if traffic has evenly disappeared, or if one geo has an outsized impact.

      I would also look at the content, especially if you have directories look at the Content Drilldown report for before and after – that will have clues if particular groups of content are untagged.

      For specific things you should probably hire a GACP, they can help you get to the bottom of this pretty quickly. http://bit.ly/gaac

      -Avinash.

  71. 82
    Sally says:

    After reading this article I immediately started a love affair with our direct traffic by tagging all our links posted to social networks. After 3 weeks, the percentage of our traffic coming from "direct" sources is unchanged, percentage of referral traffic is down 10% and campaign traffic is up 7%. The obvious conclusion is that social traffic was not being reported as "direct" but rather as referral traffic, as it should be.

    Even more confusing, when I compare visits shown under the Social Tab for Network referrals to visits from the social campaigns for the 3-week period, there are many more visits from the social sites being reported under Network referrals than under Campaigns.

    My question is, with the new Social reports, is it still advisable to tag social campaigns? Or will that simply confuse the data? I know I'm confused!

    • 83

      Sally: It is very difficult to attribute any particular cause to what you are seeing, without getting much deeper into your data and your acquisition strategy. If you need help with that please do consider hiring a GACP. You'll find a list here: http://www.bit.ly/gaac

      Social reports should be able to recognize just fine the campaign parameters you are using. It is advisable to use url parameters in your social links so that you can more easily separate social traffic you are generating vs social traffic others are sending your way.

      -Avinash.

  72. 84
    Peter Minten says:

    We have a blog discussing products of a variety of manufacturers.

    Recently a manufacturer asked us if we could utm tag links from our blog to his site with the tags utm_source=OurSiteName&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=OurSiteName.

    Since the manufacturers can already see our traffic in his referral traffic report, I do not see the point of adding utm tags to all our outbound links to manufacturers but perhaps I am missing an important point, so: is there an advantage of tagging outbound links with utm tags instead of just leaving the traffic to appear in the referral traffic section of the receiving website (eg is the referrer information in HTTP requests less reliable than utm tagging,…)?

    • 85

      Peter: Here's a filter I apply as a business owner (in your case that would be the manufacturers you are working with).

      If I'm paying for traffic (say I'm paying you for a link on your blog) I want that tracked as a campaign. I want the UTM parameters because it will allow for better tracking of data, it will allow for the data showing up with my other campaigns, easier analysis.

      If I'm not paying for traffic (say a link on your site :)) then I don't want it tracked with UTM parameters because I want that to show up under my "organic" traffic sources which is in the Referring URLs report.

      -Avinash.

      • 86
        Peter Minten says:

        Thank you Avinash! I understand that the data quality of the utm measurement is better but somehow (but that's probably my feeling) I had the impression that campaigns was more a thing for "one shot" or temporary actions such as an email campaign a banner,…Besides the fact that they are limited in time, the number of different inbound links for a certain source/medium combination is also most of the time limited. So having utm_medium=site feels a bit awkward to me.

        With several authors writing for our blog, it means that everyone should take care that the outbound links are correctly tagged (could probably be automated but that requires a more structured approach than articles of a blog; a company attribute per article would be required plus a kind of plugin to do some automated tagging); if not, our manufacturers will see our traffic sometimes in the referral traffic and other times in the campaign traffic. A situation which is an analysis nightmare I guess.

        Do you know some examples of sites using utm_medium=site?

  73. 87
    Vasudevan says:

    Hi Avinash,

    Thanks for this great post. I was looking for a solution to my current issue of Direct being very high on my eCommerce site which we don;t believe it to be true. Few things unique about us.

    1. We are into online education (both elearning & classroom trainings) and sales cycle here is pretty long (30 – 90 days from first visit to sales).

    2. Due to this, we do first click channel attribution instead of last click, which is GA's default.

    3. For this, we've a custom cookie which stores the first click channel tag and waits till the user completes the transaction (whenever in the next 90 days). The customer would have come to the site multiple times after through other channels, but the moment he/she transacts, we fire the first click channel tag to GA.

    4. As most times, the last channel (transacting users) wll direct as the users will be negotiating with our sales team and at times, they send out a custom payment link for them to make payment. That's why we do this first click attribution.

    But still, we have over 35% sales get attributed to direct which is hard for us to believe. I'm responsible for marketing and need to crack this issue to know which channels give us the most sales.

    Needless to say, all our campaigns are utm tagged, so that's not the issue.

    Please show a path to figure out the issue.

    Thanks!
    Vasudevan.T
    Bangalore

    • 88

      Vasudevan: The best option for complex GA requests is to hire a GAAC to go through the requirements and validate and recommend the right path. You'll find a list here: http://www.bit.ly/gaac

      Two years ago the Google Analytics team released multi-channel funnels. One benefit for this excellent feature is that you don't have to do the kind of crazy magic you are attempting in your comment. Just have the standard code on the site, remove all the crazy magic, log into GA, look at exactly how your consumers are behaving (sometimes this is very different from how we want them to behave or how we wish for them to behave).

      Start by understanding the macro view in the Assisted Interactions report. Then look at the Top Conversion Paths. You are not much, much smarter than any other point about your actual user behavior.

      Then click on the Attribution Modeling Tool and you are welcome to apply any model you want, including first click (though I have to be transparent and say that in both my books I've mentioned that first-click is perhaps one of the most sub-optimal models on the planet – including for long conversions).

      In the small chance your Google Analytics account does not have the attribution modeling tool activated, please use this form to get access http://zqi.me/amtga In addition to first-click, last-click, even, completely custom models.

      Good luck!

      -Avinash.

  74. 89
    Ayman says:

    Hi Avinash,

    I am not sure if I will get a reply on this but at least I will try.

    Currently I am stuck with a complex web analytics dilemma. I am running different ads on different platforms Adwords/Facebook/Twitter. All my links were tagged with utm_source.

    When I was looking at GA data and comparing it against what is reported on the original advertising platforms, I found a big difference in data. Example: One of my adwords display campaigns received 5000 clicks as reported in adwords, but I got only 200 visits out of those 5000 clicks as per GA!!!! (PS: no extensions are enabled in my campaign so the clicks are only going to my website and checked after one week of that camp to make sure that data is completely collected). It is really really frustrating!

    Anyway, the same thing happened with facebook and twitter. I contacted the adwords team and they blamed me for tagging my destination URLs with utm_source (I was like seriously!!!).

    They said you need to remove all your utm_tags and because auto-tagging feature in adwords is enabled, so tagging your urls will make a conflict and cause this discrepancy.

    I did listened to them and removed the utm_source tags, and guess what happened? My direct traffic reached the sky(I was very stupid to do so but said to myself hey this is GOOGLE).

    Now, my traffic is missed up entirely and I don't know what to do.

    Avinash, and everyone else

    What is your advice in this situation?

    Thanks-Ayman

  75. 91
    Steve A says:

    Absolutely terrific article, thanks for the insights.

  76. 92
    Sally L says:

    With actual sources of Direct Traffic now reportedly including everything from shortlinks to mobile or Adobe Air apps (and even some direct mobile visits) to sites whose security settings prevent pass-throughs of referring URLs to incognito browsing in addition to untagged links, is it really possible to get truly meaningful data from Direct Traffic reports anymore, even using the excellent tips in this article?

    • 93

      Sally L: Think of it in two ways:

      1. If other people are sending you traffic… you are at their mercy. If they send you traffic from adobe air apps or mobile apps, you have no choice. That is all direct.

      (Remember short links, if used, always show up as a referrer from websites.)

      2. If you are creating the experiences/campaigns that send traffic… you can simply add tracking parameters to your links and that will make sure no matter where people come from, you'll be able to track the source (even if the referrer is missing).

      Avinash.

  77. 94
    shiv says:

    Hi Sir,
    i am also messed up with direct traffic recently, Actually we are advertising on that plateforum from a long time and getting it as a referal in my google analytics But recently we changed landing page only nthing else and getting it as direct traffic

    How is it possible and what can be possible causes?

    i used Ga Debugger :

    Tracking Becon sent with all parameters except utmr

    Can you please guide me What can be possible reasons and how to deal with?

  78. 96

    I do a lot of outbound marketing and my leads are in the cyber security space. I have found that my US leads *never* click on hyperlinks for security reasons (and to be honest, there are good reasons for this).

    To combat this issue, I write out the non customized url and hyperlink the url with the campaign/source etc. This way, the reader can at least reach the targeted page and not my homepage.

    Besides for having different landing pages per campaign, how else could I break down the direct traffic?

    • 97

      Ahuvah: I'm sorry I don't think I understand exactly what you are doing. Would you please share an example? Perhaps there is a link you have on some page I can look.

      From a macro perspective, you are right. Landing Pages are an alternative. But you might end up creating too many of them.

      If I have any more ideas after seeing your example, I'll be happy to share them.

      -Avinash.

    • 98

      Ahuvah: Here's one more idea, if all other tracking options fail….

      You can do a controlled experiment. Rather than sending an email to everyone, send the email to one pool of people and don't send it to another pool. For example send it to everyone in Eu but not NA. Or everyone who is Male and not Female (though you might not know this). Or everyone in one mailing list and not the other.

      Then what happens is you can see how much increase there is in direct traffic and you can attribute it to your test group. If you do this a few times, you'll get a good sense for how many people in the direct bucket are these types of people.

      You won't know exactly which people or their names or anything, so you are preserving the anonymity of your users. They will be happy.

      Here's more on controlled experiments: http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/controlled-experiments-measuring-incrementality/

      Avinash.

  79. 99
    Eric Martin says:

    Hi all. Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Kaushik.

    I have a specific issue regarding direct traffic that I'm hoping someone here will be able to help me with. Any help is greatly appreciated, thank you :)

    Using Google Analytics I want to track direct traffic with a short link that I create myself… I get the sense that Analytics isn't set up for this (it is set up for tagging URL's using the GA system, but I don't want those long URLs that tagging creates), but can do this none the less.

    I'll give a fictional example below for illustrative purposes and perhaps you can help me understand how to get what I'm looking for.

    I have xyz.com/a which is my landing page. I have a thousand clients which I'm sending this link to in the mail via QR code. Each person gets a unique QR Code. The unique codes are, for the first client xyz.com/a?1 – for the second – xyz.com/a?2 and so on for all one thousand clients.

    When I check for traffic in GA after using these links to test them, I get hits to xyz.com/a but it's hard to find hits to xyz.com/a?2 , for example. But, I know that somewhere along the lines Google is tracking this. How can I drill down to find a list of all the links such as xyz.com/a?1 and xyz.com/a?2 that people have visited? It seems like GA takes all of the xyz.com/a?X type links and aggregates their statistics to one xyz.com/a link

    I know that Google is capturing this at some point because I have found xyz.com/a2 listed in GA under Real-Time -> Overview when I'm viewing that real time page and I go to the particular link. However, I want to find out which of these unique links are visited without have sit and watch the Real-Time feed 24/7. All help is appreciated, perhaps there is something I'm missing. The reason I'm not using built-in tagging feature with GA is because that will make the URL much longer and I desire a shorter URL with no URL shortener being used.

    • 100

      Eric: Your best option is to buy a url shortner (they are ten bucks and you can set up a professional account for cheap at bit.ly or use their free offering). For example my url shorter, powered by bit.ly, is zqi.me.

      I can shorten a link to my post to this: http://zqi.me/7bestux If you click on that link you'll see the tracking parameters are included (see the whole link on the landing page). I now know how many people came to the page from me sharing the short link on twitter.

      So you can see it does everything you want it to do, and it is easily trackable in the Campaign reports in Google Analytics. As you'll note I'm also able to customize what comes after the /, this should also help your use case.

      To your question… What you are sending GA is a url parameter, the bit after the question mark in your url. You can check your admin settings in GA to see if you have asked GA to strip out the url parameters. That could be an issue. Another idea is for you to create an advanced segment with parameters. I think Referral Path or Campaign might work, depending on what you are actually doing.

      -Avinash.

  80. 101
    Eric Martin says:

    Thank you for the response, Avinash. I think I will go the way of a URL shortner.

    Just so you know, I didn't see anything under GA's setting relating to stripping out URL parameters. Sometimes GA shows parameters, just not all the time and not the times that I really need it in this instance.

  81. 102
    Stan Denman says:

    Just really don't understand this.

    If your campaigns are all set to autotag, you should not be having this problem, right?

    • 103

      Stan: If your campaigns are all set to autotag, that particular part of your perhaps Direct traffic will be fixed. It will show up in the Campaign bucket in your analytics tool.

      But you still have to worry about solving for mobile apps, ensuring all your landing pages (and indeed the site) are tagged, using vanity urls for your offline campaigns, and many other issues outlined in this post.

      Avinash.

  82. 104
    Mark says:

    We have also always loved direct traffic – until now.

    Starting in Mid July our site has had a huge spike in Direct Traffic – all from Gainesville FLorida, all of it goes to the home page, all of it bounces. It is throwing all of our metrics for direct traffic out the window.

    It is not from any set of specific IP addresses (apparently – since that info is not available in GA, I have to rely on others to tell me that piece of it), but clearly must be some sort of bot traffic – just have no idea why it would even be happening, or how to stop it.

    Wish there was some other details we could access to show where Direct traffic comes from in this case?

    • 105

      Mark: I'm afraid based on the information in your comment it is very hard to share anything you might find to be of value. Someone has to go in and dig deeper and see if there is anything you your analytics data (or your web logs if you have access to them) to find what's up.

      You should consider hiring a GACP to help you, here's a list: http://www.bit.ly/gaac

      If you want to diy, I find segmenting data very helpful. You've already identified Gainesville. Is the traffic evenly distributed across all pages or just some? That might have clues. Are the visits evenly spread out during the day (look at your hourly reports)? This is a sign of bot traffic (though GA almost always is excellent at filtering it out before you see it). Was there some local promotion you were running – especially targeted at mobile apps (including social)? That might be something. Other such things.

      Your site logs, at your site host usually, have the IP addresses, if you really need them.

      Avinash.

      • 106
        Mark says:

        Thanks Avinash – good DIY tips – unfortunately I have already dug through those in GA: traffic is pretty much spread throughout the day and is all on desktop computers. Any GACP's who are on this have an insight into what their approach would be? I think the help needed may be beyond GA expertise and more in general web technology expertise?

  83. 107

    Hi there,

    Nice tips, thanks! I don't know if it's already been spoken of in the comments, but I am struggling with the following:

    Say customer x finds our website through google adwords
    A few days later, he directly types in the URL of our website, but sees… our homepage

    I'd like this customer to be redirected to the google adwords linked page on his, let's say, 2 or 3 visits after the first google adwords visit. This must be possible! Could you help me out with this one?

    Many thanks
    Jimmy van Dijk – NL

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