Direct Traffic, Dark Social and More

Hummingbird CreativeBranding & Creative

You’re checking out your Google Analytics, seeing where people are coming from. Referral, social, organic, paid, display. All pretty self-explanatory. But wait, what about the direct traffic? What does that even mean?

When it comes to direct traffic in Analytics, there are two myths that need to be cleared up.

The first myth is that direct traffic reads as people typing in your URL directly into their browser or clicking from a bookmark. The second myth is that direct traffic is bad (is there really such a thing as bad traffic?) because there’s no way for you to analyze direct traffic the same way you would social or referral. Because it’s so misunderstood, many people just skip over direct traffic and don’t give it the thought it deserves.

what is direct traffic?

Google Analytics will report a traffic source as direct when it has no data source on how the user arrived on your website or when the referring source has been configured to be ignored. This is Analytic’s backup plan for when its algorithm fails to attribute a session to a particular source.

The graphic below from BuiltVisible illustrates how sessions are read by Google Analytics. Direct is the final group, the “catch-all” group.

what’s the cause of direct traffic?

There are five common causes of direct traffic.

common cause #1: manual address entry and bookmarks

While manual address entry and bookmarks aren’t the sole source of direct traffic, it is one of the six common causes. This one is largely unavoidable, there’s not much you can do to avoid Google Analytics reading this as direct traffic.

common cause #2: HTTPS redirecting to HTTP

When a user follows a link on a secure site (you’ll know it’s secure if it has HTTPS in the top URL bar) to a non-secure site (this one will have HTTP), no referrer data is passed. This means the session will appear as direct traffic instead of as a referral.

This is actually not a glitch, it’s how the security protocol was designed. It also only affects HTTPS to HTTP. HTTP to HTTP, HTTPS to HTTPS, and even HTTP to HTTPS will all read as referral traffic.

common cause #3: missing or broken tracking codes

This is a pretty easy fix. Sometimes, when you’ve built a new site or launched a new landing page, you forget to include the Google Analytics tracking code. Or, even more frequently, your tracking code is misfiring for one reason or another.

A user lands on your page without proper tracking code before clicking to a page that has tracking code.Google thinks the second page visited is the first page of the session but pulls the referral data as a self-referral. It reads as direct traffic if your domain is on the referral exclusion list– the default configuration.

There’s an easy fix to this: fix your tracking code. Go through your site, make sure your code isn’t a mess, your tracking code is on every page and you’ll start receiving correct data.  

common cause #4: documents

Links in a Word Document, slide deck, or PDFs do not pass referral information. Users who click on these links to your site will be seen as direct traffic. For the most part, this is unavoidable– especially if you’re not the one who publishes the information.

If you are the one publishing the documents or slide decks, you do have the ability to control the information. You should be tagging the embedded hyperlinks with UTM campaign parameters. It’s like sending out email campaigns without campaign tracking; it’s so easy to set up, why wouldn’t you do it?

Have you ever seen a URL that looks like this:

That’s adding the UTM campaign parameters making it easily trackable.

common cause #5: dark social

This is probably the most mythical and misunderstood cause of direct traffic. Alexis Madrigal coined the phrase “dark social” in a 2012 piece for The Atlantic. The term refers to social sharing that can’t be attributed to a specific source (like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube). These sources could include email, instant messaging, and even Facebook Messenger. They’re often private channels versus public channels like a Facebook feed. Studies have even found that 80% of your content is shared via these private channels. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegraph and Facebook Messenger are even outpacing social media apps in usage.

Tracking dark social traffic can be kind of a pain. You have to make sure you’re tracking your campaigns rigorously. The easiest way to configure share buttons for those private channels, ensuring any URLs shared has those important UTM tracking codes.

Direct traffic can really give you an insight into the way your website is working, how engaged people are with your content and what you can do better in your brand’s marketing strategy. Don’t be afraid of direct traffic and dark social, embrace it.

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