If you don't know where your website visitors are coming from, it's like you're running a business blindfolded. You end up throwing money at different marketing channels without knowing which ones are truly effective. In contrast, when you know which marketing channels are driving the most traffic to your ecommerce site, you can allocate your resources accordingly.

Direct traffic is a website analytics metric that tracks how many visitors arrive from sources such as bookmarks, direct type-in URLs, or unidentified sources. In this post, we'll take you through everything you need to know about direct traffic and teach you how to attribute website sources more accurately so you limit the amount of traffic you get from unidentified sources.

What is direct traffic?

Direct traffic is any website visitor who lands on your site without being referred from another website. This type of traffic could include:

  • Bookmarks saved in a browser

  • Direct type-in URLs

  • Unidentified sources

  • Dark social (when links are shared in private messages like Whatsapp or Facebook messenger)

  • Links from offline documents (like a downloaded PDF)

  • A user navigating from an HTTPS site to an HTTP site

Direct traffic can be highly beneficial for any website, as it can indicate that users are actively and deliberately visiting your domain. For instance, a user who has your website saved in a bookmark is probably more likely to convert than someone who comes across your brand in a Google search. However, direct traffic is not always as direct as it seems.

In many cases, direct traffic reported by analytics software can be attributed to a website visitor coming from an unknown or unidentified source. If there is no referral or attribution information, the traffic is classed as direct. This type of traffic is referred to as "dark traffic," and it can often be difficult to accurately attribute the source.

Direct vs. organic traffic in Google Analytics

In Google Analytics, direct and organic traffic are two separate channels that are tracked and reported separately. Google Analytics uses a combination of the referral information, entered URL, and the tracking code on the website to identify the traffic source and categorize it as direct or organic.

For direct traffic, Google Analytics looks for sessions where the user enters the URL directly into the browser or clicks on a bookmark, and this will be identified as direct traffic on GA. On the other hand, for organic search traffic, Google Analytics checks the referral sources and looks for sessions that came from queries in search engines. These visitors will usually come to your site after searching for a specific keyword or phrase and clicking on one of the listings in the search engine results.

Direct vs. referral traffic

Google Analytics also distinguishes between direct and referral traffic, which tracks how many visitors arrive at your site from links on other websites. This type of traffic could be generated when another website or blog posts a link to your site, either as part of an article or social media post or in an advertisement. It may also be generated by newsletter subscriptions and direct emails sent out to users who have opted to receive promotional materials from your business.

Why is it important to know where your traffic is coming from?

Identifying where your website traffic comes from is crucial for understanding your audience, creating targeted campaigns, and understanding which marketing channels are most effective. It enables you to allocate resources effectively, create a personalized user experience, make data-driven decisions, and measure the return on investment of your marketing efforts. For instance, if a paid ad campaign drives the majority of traffic to your site, you can double down on paid ads to replicate the success.

Accurately tracking direct traffic will also help you identify referral sources that may not have been tracked before, such as offline documents. The more accurately you can attribute direct traffic to a source, the better understanding you'll get of how your website is performing.

How to limit unnecessary direct traffic

Direct traffic isn't inherently bad. If customers are directly accessing your site from things like bookmarks, that's obviously a good sign. However, as far as possible, you want to limit dark traffic, so you know how people are reaching your site. Here are some techniques that'll help you limit the amount of unidentified traffic.

If you're using Google Analytics, you can use built-in features such as auto-tagging and UTM parameters to update your link tracking. UTM parameters are variables that you add to URLs for tracking purposes. They help GA identify the source of traffic coming from campaigns like direct emails, pay-per-click (PPC) ads, and social media posts.

Check your tracking codes

If you already use UTMs to track referral traffic and campaigns, you should audit your codes to make sure they're working properly. A broken tracking code that doesn't contain referrer data in the right format will be counted as direct traffic. Check all links that direct users to your website, and ensure the code is firing correctly for each one.

Migrate to HTTPS

If a user navigates from a secure HTTPS website to an HTTP site, the traffic will be attributed as direct. Ensure your ecommerce site is properly migrated to HTTPS, so users can visit any page on your website securely.

Analyze direct traffic regularly

Monitor direct traffic regularly and take action when necessary. If you notice you've started to receive more direct traffic, then it could be a sign of incorrect tracking. Make sure you investigate any direct traffic spikes to ensure your analytics are accurate. If you notice a direct traffic spike that correlates with a marketing campaign you ran, it could be a sign that the campaign isn't being tracked correctly.

Add UTM parameters to offline files

If you have any offline files, such as PDFs, that direct customers to your site, make sure you add UTM parameters to them. This will ensure GA correctly attributes the source of traffic coming from those documents. For example, if you have a downloadable ebook containing links to your website, add UTM parameters so GA can track the direct source.

Make sure Google Analytics code is on all your pages

The Google Analytics code should be present on each page of your site, so GA can accurately track user behavior. Make sure the tracking code is installed on all pages of your website and that it's working properly. If there are any pages without the code, direct traffic will be counted for these pages as well.

Block internal traffic

Internal traffic refers to visits from people within your organization. Employees like developers might frequently visit your website, and you don't want those visits to be counted as direct traffic. To prevent direct traffic from being confused with internal traffic, you should get everyone in your organization to use the Google Analytics Opt-out Add-on extension. This will stop their activity from being counted by GA.

Become a campaign tracking expert

The most effective way to avoid dark traffic in the first place is to track all your marketing campaigns from the start. To do this, get familiar with different types of campaign tracking techniques and URL parameters. This way, you'll be able to accurately track direct traffic sources and make data-driven decisions that will drive better results for your website. Check out Emotive's guide to successful Campaign Tracking.