Google Analytics Woes: Making Sense of the “Direct” Madness

Google Analytics Direct Traffic Explained - The Munn GroupIn my SEO training program, I’m always really excited when we reach the halfway point. Because that means we’re coming up on one of my favorite topics I teach on: Google Analytics (GA) and Google Search Console.

“Finally! A deep dive into analytics will bring it ALL together and will make the tedious minutiae of SEO worthwhile,” I used to think to myself as I rubbed my hands together gleefully and imagined all the lightbulbs in my clients head turning on.

However, over the past few years, analytics—and interpreting the data and meaning—has gotten increasingly complex as there’s so much more we need to sift through and analyze deeper in order to get an accurate picture. And really, so much more contributes to SEO than ever before we have to be very cognizant and protective of our precious data.

One of the historically more straightforward reports was the channel breakdown within analytics. Today, not so much, as referral spam, mobile, paid campaigns, tools and overall diversification of how traffic is getting driven to the website is reported.

As SEOs discuss the importance of being findable everywhere (not just in Google), it’s more important that we not only help shine the spotlight on content getting found away from your site, but also that we’re looking at how those visits away from the site are eventually driving traffic back to the site and assisting in conversions.

Remember the goal of SEO: EYEBALLS. Eyeballs through more and better discoverability.

The more eyeballs, the more potential for social media shares, the more potential for backlinks through content discovery, the more potential for rankings increase, the more potential for leads, conversions, sales, profit, and world domination.

(Side note: I even wanted to do a tagline for my business called “More Eyeballs” but it was shot down by branding experts I informally polled. Which I was pretty sad about. But I digress – back to Analytics.)

I talk about Google Analytics being critical for understanding website performance. And I’m not talking about opening analytics, looking at the traffic line, shrugging your shoulders, and carrying on about your day. I’m talking about understanding the trends of your website across seasonalities, business peaks, and marketing activities so that you can make more informed decisions and allocate resources appropriately.

Because modern SEO success relies heavily on the success of other marketing activities and channels, it’s a non-negotiable discussion to have about the importance of the following contributing factors and traffic measurements from:

• Search
• Social
• Referral
• Display
• Direct

“Direct?” Yes. It’s “direct” I want to discuss. More and more I see numbers around this channel on the rise. Let’s dig in to some of the reasons behind that.

Direct Traffic Sources – Traditional and New

It’s commonly known that “direct” traffic comes from one of the following:

• Clicking a link from an email – depending on the email provider and/or setting configurations
• Clicking a link from a PDF or .doc
• Bookmarked URLs
• Typing in URLs directly – tip: you should be filtering out IPs from employees or other people related to your business if they’re on your site a lot and you want clear data.
• Sub-domains and visiting pages from within your site that have do not have proper Google Analtyics code carried across
• Word of mouth and offline campaigns – they might directly type in your URL, or they might go to Google and google your brand name, and in this case that would show up as “organic” traffic.

7 Newer sources of “direct” I want to bring attention to:

  1. Instagram has historically never come in as “instagram” and instead comes in as direct traffic. Here’s a great post about that. I’ve seen an instance or two of “Instagram” being labeled as such but it’s been rare. I checked with other experts to see if they’re getting the same findings, and most agree that Instagram links from apps still don’t pass referral data.
  2. Mobile phone apps often do not pass referrer information (Facebook and Twitter have been known culprits of this)
  3. Clicking on a URL shortener (depending on which one; twitter passes for example, but others do not)
  4. When you post a link on a social network and that link is clicked outside of the network; this is known as “dark social media,” and Social Media Examiner gives a good example:
    1. For example, dark social media traffic happens when you post a link to Facebook and someone clicks on it from within a mobile dashboard app such as TweetDeck, or when someone copies that link and shares it via email or a text message.
  5. Campaign parameters not being tagged appropriately: URLs shared in social, email marketing, paid search, display, content like PDFs on other sites, etc.
  6. 302 redirects instead of 301s
  7. Passing from an “https” secure site to a “non-https” site – this is happening more and more as many sites continue to convert

The moral of the story? Digging into the data is critical. Here are a couple tips and resources to leave you with:

• The most recommended solution from multiple references to discern campaign traffic is to make sure you’re using Google’s URL Builder.
• See if a drop in traffic in one channel correlates with an uptick in another channel if you do notice “other” on the rise
• You can also read this solid guide from Kissmetrics about “The New Google Analytics Social Reports.”
• And if you’re feeling dangerous, check out Annie Cushing’s “The Definitive Guide to Campaign Tagging in Google Analytics.

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Jenny Munn

Jenny is an independent Digital Marketer and SEO Consultant with more than 10 years of experience helping companies and content creators generate brand awareness, traffic, and conversions with SEO. She is a frequent speaker and is on the faculty for the AMA (American Marketing Association) and has taught SEO to thousands of marketers over the past 10 years.
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  • Janet Chiu says:

    Thanks for the Instagram tip – clients are increasingly using it, so I’ll know where to look.

    You didn’t mention spam, but have you noticed a large number of visits from Boardman, Oregon, in your Direct visits? Some of my clients get an alarming number, so they have to be filtered out. Life was easier when spam came just through Referral traffic!

    • Jenny Munn says:

      Janet – hmm, I’ll have to check and report back. And so true and sad – can’t we go back to the good ol’ days of simple referral spam? 🙂

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