What is “Direct Traffic” ?
“Direct Traffic” is a legacy label that no longer makes sense. Once upon a time, in long-ago simpler days (approximately 2003), the absence of a referrer in log files could only mean that somebody typed your site’s name into the browser’s address window, or used a bookmark, which amounts to the same thing.
Here’s our current list of reasons for an empty referrer field, a.k.a Direct Traffic, or as it should be called, “Unknown Referrer Traffic.”
Although this list will help you find ways to reduce your Direct Traffic to more realistic numbers (i.e. closer to just reporting on #1), Direct Traffic is still a mess. Or, as Jacques Warren once said, “I, for one, never use Direct Traffic in my reports and analyses anymore. It’s full of unreliable crap.”
- Somebody really did type in the address, or used a bookmark to get to your page.
- They clicked on a link in an email. (Not always true. If they used some kind of web mail, the web mail server will usually be the referrer)
- The link was in a document, Excel workbook, or PDF
- The link was in Skype, GTalk, or AIM
- The link was in a mobile app and opened your site in a (mobile) browser. For example, clicking on a URL in a tweet viewed in a Twitter app or client, or a mention seen in a Facebook app.
- The link originates at a secure (https:) page and your page is not secure (http) (this sometimes includes web mail servers)
- The link originates at a secure (https:) page and your page is secure (https:) for certain browsers, but not all
- Spiders and bots were working from a list of URLs from a previous crawl (this one mostly applies to server logs, rarely to SDC)
- Spiders and bots may be programmed to suppress the referrer information (this one mostly applies to server logs, rarely to SDC)
- The link to your site is from within a Flash application (mostly a problem with IE) (there are a lot of ways to do this in Flash so there may be exceptions)
- Your landing page redirects to another page via a 302 temporaryserver-side redirect
- The link was on an intranet or some other web site behind a proxy or corporate gateway that was set up to strip referrers from requests
- The visitor has made changes to their browser that suppresses the referrer information
- The visitor has set one of your pages as their browser’s home page or a pinned tab. This is especially a problem where you’re a big company and your employees have the site as their home page … but you should be filtering out your own company’s IP addresses in the first place.
- Another site has put your page content into an iFrame and coded the frame to suppress the referrer, in order to make it difficult for you to find out who is framing your content
- Certain A/B situations where visits directed to the B page group are redirected via 302 from the control page (A) to B too quickly for the tag to fire on A. Check with your A/B vendor about whether this might happen with their product.
As you can see, IE is responsible for a big proportion of non-referrer visits. If you want to get a better idea of your referrer mix, you could try a Firefox-only Referrers report, or Firefox+Safari (with Safari, you’ll get a lot of iOS mobile though).
If you want to do a little more sleuthing, go to a search engine and request a list of all the indexed pages that have links to your site (or to a particular page). (Search for “link:www.yoursite.com”) Visit those pages to see if the links have the quirks described above.
Search engine traffic that uses your domain name as the search term really should be classified as Direct Traffic, because for all practical purposes it is the same as typing the URL into the address bar. You might want to add these to your reporting on how much of your traffic is Direct Traffic.
A lot of marketing traffic (email, sometimes banners) comes through as Direct Traffic for various reasons described above. If you are properly marking your campaign traffic with landing page parameters (WT.mc_id for example) you can quantify this traffic and subtract it from your estimates of Direct Traffic. Try a report that is filtered to exclude traffic with a referrer and any value of WT.mc_id.
p.s. even with the above fixes, Direct Traffic is still mostly crap.