January 15, 2017



Understanding ‘direct traffic’ in your channel performance

When clients first come to us, we talk up the value of Google Analytics. We emphasise the importance of seeing where their traffic is coming from. We go to great length to explain how it’s critical to understand and pinpoint whether users came organically, from paid ads, social media or referral sites.

So, after building performance dashboards to capture all of this data, the day comes when we’ve gathered enough data to analyse – but the report comes out with data like this:

The example above shows that over 28% of traffic came from direct sources. But, what does this label mean, exactly?

Firstly, when does a direct session occur? The general belief is that direct visits are thought of as people who type the whole URL directly into their browsers, or have previously visited your website, bookmarked it and then returned by clicking on that bookmark.

However, in nearly every instance when examining all of our client data, the top landing pages visited by direct users for the first time (thus excluding all users who’ve returned by bookmarks), will contain multiple URLs which are considered to be ‘long’. E.g.: mywebsite.com/services/webdesign-melbourne

It seems highly unlikely for these first-time direct visitors to be typing out full URLs to visit a website.

In this article by Angela Southall, she talks about this mystery, which was coined ‘dark social’.

In a nutshell, dark social occurs when visitors share your content with friends outside of typical social media platforms. They may share links via email, SMS or other popular messaging apps like Whatsapp, WeChat, Skype or Slack. Google Analytics looks at this traffic as ‘direct’, but in actual fact, it’s social.

If you think about how you normally share interesting content with your friends or colleagues, some of that behaviour would be considered ‘dark social’ – making this sort of peer-referred traffic very valuable, since it is highly trusted.

Direct traffic can include a range of different sources. Although you won’t be able to track the sources for 100% of this traffic, you can implement measures to track as much of it as possible. At metronome, we practice this by adding tracking parameters or UTM tags to URLs that are used in campaigns. This allows us to filter and analyse traffic from specific campaigns separately, valuable data that would otherwise be destined for the ‘direct’ channel. Google’s URL Builder makes this process of tagging URLs easier.

Take the time to properly understand direct traffic, as well as possible scenarios relating to your website. To have a successful digital strategy, ensure tracking has been implemented to help inform the data analysis.