What Is Direct Traffic In Google Analytics

Direct traffic is one mysterious bunch of data that just keeps popping up in your GA reports, while you have no slightest idea what is behind it. 

Or maybe, you’re thinking, it’s your solid brand campaigns that got the job done. Because now people are actually looking for your brand, typing its name in the address bar.

“Direct” implies that, right?

Not quite. Let’s spill the beans over what direct traffic in Google Analytics really means.

Does direct traffic mean direct navigation?

direct traffic and type-in traffic

Some still think that “direct” refers to visitors landing at a website by entering the URL in the address bar.

But, unless your URL is apple.com, isn’t it naive to assume this is what makes your direct traffic? Especially when the curve is increasing gradually, and it’s not like you invested much in brand-awareness campaigns lately.

What is direct traffic in Google Analytics

Apparently, Google Analytics puts all traffic with no origin into one giant basket called “direct.”

It means, there is no source defined, no referral, no medium, no tags, and GA just doesn’t know what to do with it. So, it just labels it as “direct.”

Why is it called like this?

Here comes the mystery. Wouldn’t it be wiser to name the section “unknown traffic” to eliminate misconceptions?

In fact, the section was originally designed to track sessions from manually inserted links. But, as technologies involved, many other scenarios were created that can lead to the source becoming unidentified. 

Let’s clarify some of them.

Roots of direct traffic in Google Analytics

what causes direct traffic in GA
Potential hidden sources of direct traffic in GA

All traffic that GA cannot assign a referral to, or cannot define the origin of, will be placed in the “direct traffic” section. 

The greatest rub here is that you get inaccurate data, draw conclusions and call it a day. You capture only what’s on the surface, missing out on potentially profitable sources.

In-app browsers

When you open the article within apps, like Facebook or Twitter, it doesn’t bump you out to a standalone browser, it opens inside the app. 

in-app browser
In-app browser at work

In this case, GA can track the sessions, but cannot see the incoming source. The session starts, but is coming from nowhere. So, this type of traffic comes to “direct.”

Non-HTML files 

Non web-based documents, like PDFs or Docs may contain links to your website, but if the user clicks on them, the source won’t be defined. These documents operate out of the web, they’ re not HTML-based, therefore, GA cannot recognize the source.

non-web documents
Redirection from Non-Web documents

Untagged Email Marketing Campaigns

When you’re starting your email marketing campaign on your own (without any automation tools), you may omit adding UTM tags to your campaigns. As a result, GA won’t identify the source, and all sessions from email campaigns will end up in the “direct traffic” section.

The obvious solution here is to manually append UTM codes to your campaigns (we will describe how to do it further), or utilize any of email marketing tools, like SendPulse, that automatically tag links back to your site with Google Analytics code.

untagged email marketing campaigns
Email campaign redirection

Untagged Web Push Campaigns

Much like the case with email campaigns, without adding UTM codes to your web push notification campaigns, it’s impossible for Google Analytics to determine the  incoming source. 

And again, there are many automatic marketing tools that will do the job for you. If web push campaigns make a large part of your marketing strategy, then there is a reason for considering including one of such tools into your workflow.

untagged push notifications
Push campaigns

Google Discover

Google Discover is a nice algorithm that suggests content for a user based on their search activity and activity of their devices. 

However, if you click on the link from Google Discover’s result page, the source gets lost and doesn’t reach Google Analytics. 

Usually, if Google Discover is at play, you can spot a huge spike in traffic, like 150,000 sessions out of the blue. By analyzing “Discover Performance Report” in your Google Search Console, you can check if the traffic came from Discover. One thing to note is that Google Discover complies reports only if your property has passed minimum impression threshold (which is approximately 1,000 impressions within a 17 month period). It means, if you observe a sudden huge spike in traffic, it’s fairly possible that it all came from Discover.

If you can’t see this report, be sure it’s not Discover that caused the surge.

google discvoer direct traffic
Direct Traffic From Google Discover

Referrer Disavowal

Sometimes the referrers wish to disavow the backlink they don’t want to be associated with their websites. They can do it in various ways, like editing the HTML code. If the referrer doesn’t feel comfortable about redirecting users to your site, they may opt to switch links to “nofollow” links. In GA this type of traffic will be identified as unknown, or direct.

Browser errors

As simple as it sounds, any bug issue within browsers may cause organic visits to get reclassed to direct. 

Secured or encrypted browsers, that work in anonymous or privacy mode won’t send data to GA either.  

secure browsers
Secure browser redirection

Dropped Redirects

If your website is on HTTP, and the referrer is on HTTPS, Google Analytics won’t recognize the source either. 

Actually, what really happens in this case is that GA sees this redirection as potentially danger. For example, the user comes to your HTTP site from, let’s say, a trusted secure resource (like CNBC) to your unsecure site. The first and only thing that GA sees here is potential data leak. It makes the system drop the secure data, because it is much more important than saving it for your analytics. 

The obvious solution here is to migrate to HTTPS.  Not only this protocol provides security and data integrity, it lets you track data more accurately.

Manual Sharing in Apps

When a person copies and pastes the link manually in one of the social apps, like WhatsApp, Email, Messenger, etc., the metadata within the link gets lost, and GA cannot recognize the source.

dark social direct traffic
Manual link sharing in WhatsApp

Address Bar Search

This is probably the best type of direct traffic, as it points to your brand’s recognition. Each time anyone types your URL in the search bar, it gives a score to your brand awareness. 

But it’s not only this. Surprisingly, many people are used to typing in their requests in the address bar rather than in google search. All sessions coming from the URL will count for direct traffic in your GA reports. 

Saved as favourite

If people bookmark your website, it means they anticipate to revisit it, which is a good sign, as much as when they’re willing to enter your URL in the address bar. Being bookmarked means your website is of value to readers, that’s why it’s one of the best direct traffic sources. However, it is not usually the case.

Link Shorteners


The URL shortening services like cut.ly usually keep the real referrer. However, in some cases, the source can get lost in the redirection process.

What Should I Do If DT is high

direct traffic is high

If DT is 50% and more, it might be pointing to one of the potential tracking issues described above. 

First of all, you have to define what causes those spikes in your particular case by checking and crossing off all potential mysterious sources. 

Start by going to Google Search Console and figuring whether you can see the Discover Performance Report. If so, compare the numbers that are displayed there with those in your Google Analytics reports. If you cannot access the Performance Report – as we mentioned before, be sure your direct traffic didn’t originate in Discover.

Another option for getting rid of inaccurate data is to opt for simpler analytics tools. Unlike Google Analytics, such solutions allow you to define traffic from Google Discover to pinpoint accuracy. Apart from this, analytics tools like io.technologies lets you keep track of visitor engagement rate and analyze full visitor journey to grow loyal audiences and increase profits. 

Next, run an audit of your email marketing campaigns. Learn how to incorporate UTM codes in emails by yourself or engage automation tools, like MailChimp.

If you placed your links on partner’s websites, check if your links are do-follow (meaning they’ll help your SEO and be tracked in your GA reports).

By implementing the mentioned initiatives, you’ll get a clearer understanding of your marketing efforts and receive more opportunities by unlocking new profitable channels. The best thing is that they don’t take a hell of time. 

How to decrease direct traffic in GA

If nothing helps, there are always things to brush over. This is the list of components that allows Google Analytics identify the original source of the traffic. 

  1. URL of the previously visited page
  2. Google Ads parameters 
  3. UTM codes in URLs
  4. Google click identifier and other parameters that signals the user came from paid ad

Let’s go through some measures that you can take right away to ensure more accurate data reporting. Do at least some of them to get the wheels turning. 

  • First thing to do is to get a grip on tagging campaigns. In any link that you publish, you can always add UTM tags to get them referred to. It’s the only way to guarantee attribution, regardless of efforts it may take to include in your routine. You can do it manually using GA Campaign URL Builder  and URL Builder Spreadsheet Templates.
  • Another worthwhile suggestion is to opt for marketing automation tools. Some of them will preserve the tracking codes and save your time dealing with it manually.
  • Moving to HTTPS is a necessary measure if you want to start tracking your analytics correctly. Without a secure website, you can forget about attribution. All redirections to your website will be treated as potentially dangerous for intercepting data, thus, all meta data will get lost. 
  • Social media sharing can drive enormous amounts of traffic given you create optimal conditions. Most important step here is to provide properly configured sharing buttons for these channels, ensuring that users share links with appended UTM codes. 
  • While working with referrals, be meticulous about proper redirection, even if it requires some of your time. It’s important that your backlinks avoid chains and eliminate partner-side redirection in favour of single-hop one.
reducing direct traffic in GA

To make sure your website is optimized to minimize false direct traffic allocation, we’ve created this detailed checklist that you can use for free.


Summary

Google Analytics reports website traffic as direct if there is no data on how the user arrived on your website, or when the referring source hasn’t passed the information correctly. 

Direct traffic can be a very powerful source if you understand much about its unrevealed groups. It takes just several simple measures to bring this type of traffic out of shadow, and start tracking your efforts more accurately. 

There are some procedures lying out of your control, as in-app browsers in mobile apps. There is nothing you can do about it. 

However, taking a crack at becoming a pro in mastering UTM tagging, or shifting to a secured website is a duty-bond, otherwise the majority of your potential loyal traffic will be flying under the radar.