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Troubleshooting Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Often I find data analysts and online marketing folks ask questions on ‘Direct Traffic’ in Google Analytics. The primary problem is the confusion around its definition.

I know some senior marketing folks who refer to someone typing a brand name or site name on a search engine as ‘direct visitors’. These are actually Organic or non-paid search traffic.
Organic Traffic
The true definition of Direct Traffic is visitors who come to a website/page without any referral source. Note the term referral source is used broadly – includes any identified source from which a visitor was referred. It includes search engines links (paid and unpaid links), website links, tagged email links etc.

There are multiple reasons for a visitor to not have a referral source. They range from missing tags to inaccurate tags to situations where referral information is not passed such as mobile applications. Please refer the list at the end for other possible reasons affecting direct traffic (note – this list is not exhaustive).

The purpose of this article is to highlight some unique situations which can cause inaccurate direct traffic.

Google Website Optimizer Codes

For one of our clients, direct traffic increased by 200% in one week compared to previous week and continued to be at the same level over the next 6 weeks.
Direct Traffic

On investigation we found that the Google Analytics codes were customized for sub-domain tracking. However, the Google Website Optimizer (GWO) codes were not optimized for sub-domain tracking.

The setDomainname line that is added to the GA code for sub-domain tracking also needs to be added to the GWO codes failing which the visitor cookie values are re-set when the visitor moves across pages.

A second error occurred when the GWO codes got rendered on all pages of a site through a template. This magnified the effect of the error and caused a huge spike in Direct Traffic.

On removing the GWO codes (the test had been long completed), Direct Traffic dropped and the numbers were back to previous levels.

Page Redirects

In another case, a client had set-up a redirect page on completing a form on the landing page.
So while the landing page received traffic from ‘cpc’ visitors, the thank-you page showed only ‘direct’ visitors.
Direct Visitors
This was because the redirect was not a 301 or permanent redirect. On fixing the redirect, campaign attribution became accurate. Other situations impacting Direct Traffic:

  1. Links from documents such as PDFs
  2. Traffic from mobile apps
  3. Untagged email campaign traffic from email clients such as Outlook
  4. Pages with missing GA codes
  5. Link from an https page
  6. Sometimes links in iFrames do not pass referral data

Contributed by Divya Krishnan, Head – Analytics, Position²

Team Position²

Team Position²

Position2 is an innovative digital marketing agency that accelerates demand through integrated Content Marketing, Paid Acquisition, and Marketing Technology solutions. Our demand acceleration solutions map the buyer’s journey across multiple touch points such as search, social, mobile, media, and email. These integrated campaigns are powered by cutting-edge content creation, digital advertising, web design/development, marketing automation, and analytics. We serve hundreds of clients ranging from VC funded startups to Fortune 500 multinational firms. Our 200-member team is based in Silicon Valley and Bangalore and consists of marketing gurus, engineers, data scientists, writers, and designers. Founded in 2006, Position2 is backed by Accel Partners.