Understanding ‘direct traffic’ and its importance in measuring your marketing success

Measuring source of website traffic is an essential part of a digital marketer’s routine. The focus is typically on search engine traffic (whether organic or paid) and referral traffic. One source that often doesn’t get much more than a cursory look is ‘direct traffic’. However, I feel that direct traffic deserves much better attention because it can not only give an indication of the success of your overall marketing (and not just online marketing) but also this traffic could well be of a much higher ‘quality’ that results in targeted outcomes.

What is direct traffic

Before getting into the details, let us put  ’direct traffic’  in perspective.

According to Google, incoming traffic is classified as direct traffic when:

  1. Visitors remember the URL & type it on the browser’s address bar to reach your website.
  2. Visitors come from bookmarks, which they may have done when they visited a website previously and found it useful
  3. Visitors click on auto-completion (auto-suggestion) options to land on a website. Google’s definition is exact, but is rather simplified. Such simplification has contributed to a common misconception of direct traffic visits leading to misleading interpretations of analytics data. In many cases, direct traffic is much more than just bookmarked and URL-typed visits. So let us see all the sources direct traffic.


The true sources of direct traffic

The direct traffic bucket is often filled with a large array of visitors such as:

  1. URL-typed visits
  2. Visits from bookmarks
  3. Visits originating from an email signature: If someone clicks on a website link in an email signature in Outlook, no referrer will be passed to the user browser and this visit is attributed as direct.
  4. Visits coming from an untagged email campaign: When someone clicks on an untagged link (link which does not include a Google Analytics tag) from their email client (Outlook, Lotus Notes or Thunderbird), no referrer will be passed and the visit will be classified as direct. This is actually one of the most common causes of spike in direct traffic. It is therefore very important to correctly tag email campaigns. Note: This only applies to email clients. The visits originating from Webmail (Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo) get classified as referral traffic.
  5. Visits from shortened URLs in Facebook, Twitter or other Social Media channels: The shortened URLs do not pass referrers, so all the traffic coming from shortened URLs will be classified as direct. To ensure it is classified in the right bucket, make sure to tag your URLs.
  6. Visits coming from a document such as Word, Excel, PDF, etc.
  7. Visits from a user in a secured environment or intranet, where the Firewall or Proxy strips the referrer leading to the referrer not being passed.
  8. Visits from Mobile Ads: Untagged mobile ads link will be classified as direct.
  9. Visits from a Page of your website missing the Google Analytics tag. If someone clicks on a link from a page of your website, which does not have the Google Analytics tracking code, the visit will be reported as direct. It is therefore quite important to ensure that GA tracking code is added any new page you might create. (With greater use of content management systems and dynamically generated pages, this is likely to be much less of a problem than during the era of ‘static’ websites/ web pages.)
  10. Visits coming from a link on a HTTPS page pointing to a HTTP page or on a HTTP page pointing to a HTTPS page: For security reasons, the referrer may not be passed on this type of links and therefore the visit will be categorized as direct. A quick fix is to ensure that your URLs are tagged correctly.
  11. Visits from links encoded in JavaScript: For some browsers, links encoded in JavaScript will not pass the referrer and visits from those links will therefore be classified as direct traffic. As some display networks use this type of links, it is advisable to always use tagged URLs to avoid bad surprises.
  12. Visits from improperly coded Redirects. 301 Permanent Redirects usually pass the referrer information so your traffic will be classified correctly, however in some cases, 302 Temporary redirects can lead to visits being classified as direct traffic.
  13. Visits originating from instant messengers like Google Talk, Skype, etc.

Why is direct traffic important?

Having understood the many potential constituents of direct traffic, let us evaluate the significance of direct traffic and why it is an indication of brand loyalty.

Recognizing you and thinking of you
When a large percentage of your visitors are coming directly to your website, it shows that they are recognizing you and thinking of you. For example, if someone is looking for Internet / web marketing services, they could go to a search engine and do a search, or they could type http://www.ontargetmarketing.in in their browser and go directly there. In this situation, the visitor feels that there is no need to do a search; he or she would rather go to your website first because it is recognized as a valuable source of the information that is being sought.

Stable (‘no jerks’) source
Direct Traffic is independent of shaky factors like search engine rankings or social media popularity. While both of these are outstanding and valuable sources of traffic, there is always a degree of unpredictability to these sources, especially with organic SEO traffic. If people know your website and they choose to visit directly, there is nothing to stop them.

Most targeted traffic
The traffic that you receive directly will likely be the most targeted traffic that you can get. People are coming to your website because they want to find something specifically on your website or they know that they get what they are looking on your website. In most cases, they’re already familiar with your website and they are choosing to come back.

Increased loyalty
Increased recognition leads to increased loyalty. Every website aims to be recognized within the niche or industry or domain. Think about your own habits. Which websites would you say that you are most loyal to? Are they also the same websites that you visit directly? Most likely they are. With increased recognition and direct traffic you will receive more repeat visitors.

Warm leads
Direct visitors are warm leads. Whether you are selling products or just attempting to grow your subscriber base, your direct visitors will be the most responsive to whatever you are offering. Because they have chosen to visit your site specifically, they probably value your opinions over others.

Aren’t these convincing reasons to pay more attention to direct traffic?

- By Sandip Motiwale
Sandip Motiwale is SEM Manager with On Target Marketing Solutions, responsible for devising and executing traffic acquisition strategies for several niche B2B portals.

Article References:
1. Google Analytics Support
2. Increase direct traffic – a blog post on Daily Blog Tips
3. Direct Visits in Google Analytics

Interested in devising the right traffic acquisition strategy for your website? Contact us to inquire about our range of digital marketing services including SEO, Social Media Marketing and Paid Search Engine Advertising.

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