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.
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
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.
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.
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:
- Links from documents such as PDFs
- Traffic from mobile apps
- Untagged email campaign traffic from email clients such as Outlook
- Pages with missing GA codes
- Link from an https page
- Sometimes links in iFrames do not pass referral data
Contributed by Divya Krishnan, Head – Analytics, Position²