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What Does Direct Traffic Mean in Google Analytics?

Google serach

Direct traffic is an important statistic to look at when monitoring Google Analytics for your website.

Understanding what direct traffic is and how you can use it will help you boost your site’s productivity and profitability.

Direct traffic is important because it helps you determine where your visitors are coming from.

That’s critical marketing information that can help you optimize your site’s performance and achieve your marketing goals.

What Direct Traffic Means

At one time, determining direct traffic was reasonably straightforward; it referred to visitors that came to you by entering your URL directly into their browsers or clicking on bookmarks.

Organic traffic, on the other hand, is any visit tracked by another entity. Usually, the entity was a search engine, but it could also come from other online sources.

Then Google made some changes and things became less straightforward. It made security a ranking factor. Secure sites using HTTPS instead of HTTP got a boost in search engine rankings almost overnight.

Google’s decision to prioritize security, however, affected the categorization of web traffic. Any traffic coming from an insecure referring source to a site using HTTPS couldn’t be tracked and became classified as direct traffic.

Privacy settings had an impact on how traffic was categorized as well. With a simple click, users can tell a browser to abstain from telling another site where it comes from.

The result was that a lot of organic traffic was being marked as direct, making results change and get confusing. Before long website owners and managers found their direct traffic percentage increasing —especially for sites with growing organic traffic.

The question was: How much of the direct traffic was actually organic and how much was direct?

Testing Which Traffic Was Which

To determine which traffic was which, the popular site Groupon de-indexed its site for 6 hours in 2014. It wanted to see just where its direct traffic was coming from. The findings were interesting.

Groupon discovered that several factors affect direct traffic as determined by Google Analytics. In addition to security (HTTPS), these factors were:

  • Internal employees- Workers don’t filter IP from web analytics.
  • Customers- Customers that log into their client portal.
  • Emails from certain email clients- Email clicks from Outlook or Thunderbird don’t pass on referring information.
  • Mobile traffic- With mobile consistently growing in popularity, you’ll probably see direct traffic rise even more from organic search traffic.
  • Clicks on mobile apps or desktop software-  Some programs (Skype, news apps) don’t pass on referring information, resulting in direct traffic.

To get an accurate reading of direct traffic coming to your site, then, you need to account for the impact of these factors on Google Analytics.

For example, let’s look at shifting your website from HTTP (non-security) to HTTPs (secure) in your URL. According to the security protocol, any traffic originating from a secure site and going to a non-secure site won’t pass on referring information.

So, if someone is coming to you directly from a secure site and yours is unsecure, you won’t get the referring information.

But you can “correct” for this event by updating your site to be secure through a third party SSL certificate. That, in turn, will impact your direct traffic percentage in Google Analytics.

A change like this can help you get more granular when determining direct traffic so that it isn’t all lumped together and difficult to analyze.

The Key To Your Future

Taking the time to look at your website analytics can be tedious but it can also provide a great ROI. If you know where your traffic is coming from, and where it is NOT, you can target areas that need more attention and make tweaks to efforts that are not producing hoped for results.

Understand the behavior of your visitors and you will determine the best opportunities for growth.


Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in June 2018 and has been edited and updated in March 2022.

Jeff Hill

Owner / CEO
Jeff is a seasoned operations and analytics expert with a Masters in Healthcare Information Technology and experience in business development, branding, sales and marketing.

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