What is “Direct Traffic” ?

What is “direct traffic” in your referrer reports? Lots of things. More than you thought. Here are all the known reasons for the Direct Traffic classification.

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Since Yahoo traffic is quickly turning into “direct traffic,” it seemed like a good idea to re-post this (see item 18).  This post is one of the most frequently-cited posts we’ve ever done.

“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.

No longer.

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.” (Webtrends 10 does call it “Unknown Referrer,” I’m happy to say.)

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.”

  1. Somebody really did type in the address, or used a bookmark to get to your page.
  2. They clicked on a link in an email.  (Recently, this includes webmail servers also.  They don’t pass “mail.yahoo.com” and the like any more.)
  3. The link was in a document, Excel workbook, or PDF
  4. The link was in Skype, GTalk, or AIM
  5. 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.
  6. The link originates at a secure (https:) page and your page is not secure (http) (this sometimes includes web mail servers)
  7. The link originates at a secure (https:) page and your page is secure (https:) for certain browsers, but not all
  8. Spiders and bots were working from a list of URLs from a previous crawl (this one mostly applies to server logs, rarely to SDC)
  9. Spiders and bots may be programmed to suppress the referrer information (this one mostly applies to server logs, rarely to SDC)
  10. The link to your site was in Javascript (this is mostly a problem with IE).  Javascript links to your site include those that open your site in a new browser window, or any kind of javascript redirect.  Many banners’ links are programmed this way.
  11. 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)
  12. Your landing page redirects to another page via a 302 temporaryserver-side redirect
  13. 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
  14. The visitor has made changes to their browser that suppresses the referrer information
  15. 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.
  16. 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
  17. 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.
  18. Starting early 2014, they came from any Yahoo Search, if your landing page is http rather than https.  The complete anonymization of Yahoo Search traffic will be complete March 31 2014.
  19. Starting early 2014, they came from Bing secure search (secure search is optional to Bing users at this time, but may in the future follow Yahoo’s lead).



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13 thoughts on “What is “Direct Traffic” ?”

  1. David — There’s no way to (somewhat) accurately count email traffic other than to add parameters (“markers”) to all the links in your emails, identifying those visits as coming from one of your emails. (WT.mc_id)

    If the email doesn’t come from you and doesn’t have marked-up links, you’re just stuck.

  2. RE: “2.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)”

    Not always true is a key point here. What about if they receive the email through Outlook or some other email software?

    what’s the best way to glean out all email based traffic?

  3. Hmm. Gary. If you ever want to write up a quick summary of VDM (its differences, and what different skills or mindset might be needed), we’d like to publish it here!

  4. Thanks for the reply Rocky. We have done much work around multi-touch event attribution and have found VDM to be the only way for us to apply our attribution model effectively to include organic search in the attribution mix and not have it wrongly counted as paid. Fun stuff. Thanks for keeping us posted.

  5. Gary,

    I agree about WT.mc_id. It’s the only way to reliably know that people came from a certain campaign or paid-for source. (This information is this post is essential to being sure those IDs don’t get misattributed to paid when they really are organic search: http://www.webtrendsoutsider.com/2013/use-webmaster-tools-to-clean-up-organic-search-urls-2/

    The “other referrers” bucket in Traffic Sources is kinda confusing, I agree. That whole report deserves some thought, as you indicate. I’ll work on it.

  6. Hi Rocky. Thanks for the post. I have also found that the “Other Referrers” bucket from Traffic Source reports is mostly garbage as well, especially when you have cross-domain visits. Any suggestion to make the traffic source dimension and related reports useful would be great. We have largely gone away from it and focused more on tagging with WT.mc_id where relevant.

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  8. >> “It still comes down to, if there is no referrer we don’t know”

    Yes, which is why Webtrends should get with it and stop calling it “Direct Traffic”!

  9. It still comes down to, if there is no referrer we don’t know. :-)

    One suggestion if your site is used by internal users (your employees) as a reference source. They are more likely to be using typed in/booked marked URLs and also are unlikely to be your target customers. Segmenting internal from external users can remove some direct traffic that you don’t care about for sales to give you better insight to customer traffic sources.

    Similar if you have a login portal the visitors who login are more likely to be direct traffic. Segmenting visitors who have logged in (use WT.seg_x and visitor history) from those who have not helps remove one source of direct traffic and you can also use the segment to separate retention/upsell activity from new customer marketing activities.

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