Search. Referrals. Direct.
Google Analytics categorizes visitors arriving at your site primarily into these three buckets.
Search: Visitors find you in the search engines, either in the organic listing or your PPC ad.
Referrals: Visitors are referred to your site from another website that links to you – an article for example, or a blog post.
Direct: Visitors who already know about you. They go directly to your site by typing your URL into their browser or opening one of their bookmarks.
What makes Google Analytics Direct Traffic special?
Direct visitors arrive at your site under their own propulsion. They already know about you. Direct visitors are your existing customers. They are familiar with your brand.
No one had to refer them. They didn’t have to search for you. You didn’t have to beg.
Therefore, learn to love your Direct visitors. Segment them to find what they look for and what content they consume. Study their questions and what you can do to solve their problems.
And admire the conversion metrics for these visitors. It’s likely that conversion rates for clean Direct traffic are higher than for your other visitors.
Questions lurk in the Google Analytics Direct Traffic bucket
There’s just one problem in this happy story. Notice I said “clean Direct traffic.” The data for direct traffic in most sites isn’t clean. In fact, it’s probably dirty, dirty, dirty.
Why is this? Because if Google doesn’t know how a visitor arrived at your site, it categorizes the visit in the Direct Traffic bucket.
As Alban Guillemot at SEO Sydney Blog explains:
“Google Analytics classifies traffic as Direct when a user session has been started without a referrer being passed by the user browser.”
Who are these visitors that Google can’t identify properly? Avinash Kaushik describes the primary culprits in a detailed post on Google Analytics Direct traffic:
1. Missing web analytics tag from landing pages
Likely to be the most common reason that traffic gets categorized incorrectly. You thought you had inserted the Google Analytics tag on all your pages, but you missed some of them. When a visitor lands on this page and then clicks on a link to go deeper in your site, even if your campaign parameters are tagged correctly, the traffic source will be recorded as Direct. All for the lack of an Analytics tag on the landing page.
2. Online campaigns that are not tagged (email, search, social media, etc.)
Kaushik says untagged campaigns are probably the second most source of improperly categorized visitors. What are these campaigns?
They include untagged emails that send visitors from client-side email applications (like Outlook), mobile ads and mobile application links (e.g. Twitter and Facebook apps), and clicks from PDF and Microsoft Office documents.
3. Mistakes in your tagged campaign parameters
You finish the tedious work to write your campaign parameters and little do you know, you’ve made some mistakes. Easy to make. And the result? Your analytics will ignore the parameter and throw the traffic into the Direct category.
Other sources that get lumped into Direct traffic can include visits from email signatures, shortened URLS in social media like Facebook and Twitter, and from a firewall-secured environment that strips the referrer.
Is pollution in Direct really a problem?
These errors create two major headaches.
1. Your Direct traffic numbers are tainted with traffic from other sources. You’ve allowed Google Analytics to pollute the category of people you love the most, the visitors you want to understand deeply. It pulls down your conversion rates and disguises your other metrics, rendering them useless for understanding the needs of your most important visitors.
2. Your campaigns appear to be doing poorly. Instead of visitors from your campaigns getting tagged and neatly categorized where they belong, they are all getting tossed willy-nilly into Direct. When you report on these campaigns to your management you are forced to understate the results and answer awkward questions about your data quality.
How can you clean your Direct data?
The closer you look, the more Direct looks like a catchall category and not so much like a category to capture visits and learn about the needs of your customers. You don’t have to let this happen. Focus on the most important sources of incorrect categorization: correct tagging of your pages and your campaigns.
Once you’ve cleaned your Direct sources of traffic, then you can dig in and learn more about this important source of traffic – where they are in their buying cycle, what problems they are trying to solve, what content they consume most, and how their behavior differs from your other sources of traffic.