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Direct Visits in Google Analytics – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Sometimes direct is good. For example, I would have much rather been on a direct flight to Denver for this week’s Google Analytics training than having a layover in Charlotte.

But not everything direct is good. Take visits to your website, for instance. Direct visits are the worst visits you can have (at least from the perspective of a web analyst).

Why, you ask? Because direct visits are a mystery. We don’t know why they came to our site, how they found out about us or whether our marketing and advertising worked.

When you have referral or campaign information about the visits to your site, you can start to see which marketing initiatves are working and which ones you should dump.

Here’s the problem: even with rock solid campaign tagging, you’re still going to get Direct visits. Even worse, the number of those visits that aren’t truly Direct is on the rise.

Let me say that again. Not all of the “Direct” visits to your site are Direct. We have a wolf in sheep’s clothing here.

I don’t see a lot of people talking about this issue (at least publicly) but I expect it to become one of the most important issues in the web analytics industry in the next year or two.

First, let’s look at where these wolves are coming from, then talk about ways to rip off their disguises.

Mobile Devices and Apps

Let’s face it, we’re living in a multi-device world, where people connect with your content not just from a computer, but from their phones and tablets too. And they don’t always use a web browser to pull up your site. They click on links within apps for Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and many, many more.

Many of these visits show up as Direct.

Email

Clicks on (untagged) links within Outlook and other desktop email clients show up as Direct. That’s always been the case. But what’s become more common is for web-based email clients (Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) to use secure browsing (https). Consider your referrer lost – “Direct” visits strike again, more wolves.

Twitter Clients

Tweetdeck and other non-mobile Twitter apps can also show up as Direct, if a link shortener is used (bit.ly or goo.gl, for example).

Instant Messangers

How often do you send a link to someone in Google Talk or Skype? If they click on it, they are a “Direct” visit.

Technical Issues

Aside from things you have little to no control over, there are some causes that you an fix. For example, you may have errors in you code or conflicts with scripts that cause your visitors’ sessions and/or cookies to be reset, resulting in more false Direct visits.

What can you do?

The best way to clean up your data and identify these wolves is to tag them. This means having a stringent campaign tagging plan in place for every marketing effort your company does. Paid search, display ads, email marketing, TV, radio, print, direct mail, you name it – it can (and should!) be tagged. Try this campaign tagging worksheet to get started. It’s a Google Doc spreadsheet – just click File > Make a copy and it’s all yours. If the Make a copy link is grayed out, look at the link in the top right to make sure you’re signed in.

The other important thing is to realize that even that won’t solve 100% of the problem. Although you can use campaign tagging on everything you share, there will always be people who come to your site, like what they see, and copy/paste your URL into Facebook, Twitter, etc. This is especially true for blog posts and other informational content that is more likely to be shared.

One thing that will help is to look for patterns and trends in your data. As Direct visits increase, look for correlations between visits from social media (that you can still identify as such) and direct visits from mobile devices. This will be especially apparent if the direct visits are landing on internal pages with long URLs (that are mot likely not being typed in directly).

Your Turn

What weapons are you using to hunt down these wolves? How has this issue affected your data? The comments are yours!

 

Jim Gianoglio

About Jim Gianoglio

Jim Gianoglio is our Digital Analytics Engineer. He works with implementation, analysis of Google Analytics, and spearheads the LunaMetrics Google Analytics seminars across the country. Want to see him in action? He'll be heading our Google Analytics training in Los Angeles. Before succumbing to the siren song of analytics, he led the SEO campaigns of Fortune 500 companies in the insurance, retail and CPG industries. Things you didn’t know about Jim: he runs marathons, photographs weddings and has done voiceovers for TV commercials.

http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2012/09/17/direct-visits-in-google-analytics/

12 Responses to “Direct Visits in Google Analytics – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”

Mike says:

Great post Jim, we find major questions when it comes to direct traffic. Surprised it isn’t talked about more. Really like the pushing campaign tagging hard, as that what’s I’m trying to do.

Thanks for this helpful info, proper tagging is really becoming more and more important and relevant to rapidly scaling projects.

Maggie says:

I think both bit.ly and goo.gl are shortened to Twitter’s shortener t.co and traffic from clicks on these links appear as t.co / referral.

Something else that’s missing is RSS subscriptions by email or RSS reader – feedburner is counting only clicks on feed item titles, but clicks on the links inside appear as direct in GA.

Maggie – thanks for adding RSS by email and in-content links from Feedburner! I hadn’t considered those, but I’m sure they come into play.

With bit.ly and goo.gl (and other link shorteners) their behavior, and how they show up in GA is reliant on the Twitter client. For example, if I click on a bit.ly link while I’m on twitter.com, then you’re right – I show up as a referral from t.co.

But if I click on a bit.ly link from the Tweetdeck desktop app or a mobile twitter client, then it shows as direct. This inconsistent and inaccurate behavior is frustrating, to say the least.

Lauren says:

I have seen my direct hits spike. My site is only a few weeks old and this post http://laurenqhill.com/simple-yet-scary-pumpkin-carving-faces/ has over 3.6K direct visits. How is this possible? I cannot find the source through any search even when looking for the title or text. I would love to know where all this traffic is coming from. But it appears I am not meant to know.

Marvel Slots says:

Are bit.ly link shortened links showing up as direct, even if I shared them on the web like Facebook, twitter, webpages etc?

@Marvel Slots – see my comment above.

Katy N. says:

Hi Jim, Great post. Re Marvel’s Q, what about posting a bit.ly on Facebook without a tracking code. Will it show up as being from facebook.com or Direct? Thanks!

My workaround was not to rely on tags, but by creating multiple landing pages for each different type of paid advertising. It is more work, but much more accurate.

Katy,
My experience has been that it shows the majority of the visits as “direct” and some as coming from Facebook. I don’t know why.

salem says:

Hi Jim Today I notice increase in my website traffic It jumped from 16K to 21K ..
When I See Google Analytics I found 5K Direct hits .Most of them from mobile device and the half are from specified country “Sudan”.
I already face up this bot before on other site
and I 90% sure this is bot hitting my site with different Ip’s I ban IP range from .htaccess .
But my second site are using Blogger That give me no control on it .
I but adsense code on My second site and I afraid that bot could effect on my account .. should I report on it or Google will handle this issue .

Kath says:

Great article, thanks it really answered some questions for me. I had no idea that Twitter links etc would show as direct visits.