mark-f-simmons-google-analytics-direct-traffic-lieIf you’re a data junkie, like myself, you might find yourself reviewing your web analytics results on a very frequent basis. You may also find that you obsess over the smallest details. All of this is aimed at driving the most value for your client or your organization. One of those details is the Direct traffic channel in Google Analytics. It’s a liar! If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can interpret the data incorrectly.

The Problem

The problem with Direct is that it’s a catch-all bucket of data. Sure, it’s mainly comprised of people who type your URL directly or bookmark it. Let’s face it, people don’t bookmark like they used to and they also tend to Google your brand and end up clicking on a PPC or Organic link. The issue with Direct is that is captures all “orphaned” traffic. Any visitors that Google can’t understand their source end up in Direct. That means email traffic, broken link traffic, un-tagged paid traffic. It also means Word and PDF docs as well as some 302 redirects. It literally is just anything Google can’t definitively say belongs somewhere else. As long as you have an understanding of this process, you can work around it to your benefit.


Reviewing that data at face value and not addressing the issue the Direct channel creates results in bad analysis. You may find that, for instance, Organic drives the most traffic to your site, followed by Direct, then closely by PPC. You also have a hefty PPC budget and suspect traffic should be greater. What could be happening here is that some of PPC ads are not tagged with tracking code and therefore, ending up in the Direct bucket instead of PPC. You also see emails being susceptible to this as they include redirects that sometimes drop the tracking code. The data then ends up in either Referral or Direct.

Conversions & Multi-Channel

In the case of conversion date, Google handles it in 2 ways – Non multi channel reports and multi channel reports. In a non multi channel report, Google attributes the conversion to initial channel. For example, if you came in on an Organic listing then returned by typing the URL directly, Google attributes that to Organic. In the case of multi channel reports, using the same example, Google would report that as a Direct conversion, using last click attribution. Takeaway: When looking a the impact of Direct traffic, use the non multi channel reports for conversions.



General Solution

Make sure you’re tagging all your efforts. This applies to display ads, emails, social media posts and of course, PPC. Really, anytime you’re creating something that drives traffic to your domain, you need to tag it. Adwords makes it easy with auto-tagging and many social media and email platforms have a place for adding Google Analytics tags. If you need to construct them on your own, you use this handy tool – Google Analytics Url Builder. Though, once you get used to constructing the code, you can either use a spreadsheet for bulk additions or just right them out for one-offs. This won’t solve the problem of redirects where the code gets dropped, but it will clear up a lot of your most obvious Direct channel-related tracking issues.

If you found this information helpful, please leave a comment. If you have your own findings to share, please add a comment so we can start a discussion.


Yours in success,