What is “Direct” Traffic?
It’s often assumed that traffic counted under the “Direct” channel in Google Analytics is traffic that arrived on your site either by a user typing your website URL into a browser or through browser bookmarks.
This kind of traffic is indeed attributed as “Direct” by Google Analytics, however it’s not the only traffic that’s attributed as such – traffic that doesn’t truly arrive at your site directly, but is attributed as “Direct” in Google Analytics is known as “Dark Traffic”.
The reason “Dark Traffic” exists is down to how Google technically identifies “Direct” traffic – i.e. it’s traffic that doesn’t bring referral data with it via the http header as it arrives on your site.
Over time, however, a number of different types of “Dark Traffic” have emerged.
What is “Dark Traffic”?
“Dark Traffic” is a term for any traffic that arrives to your website and is incorrectly labelled by Google Analytics (or other web analytics tools) as “Direct”.
There are a lot of types of dark traffic that are commonly mislabeled as “Direct” including:
- Traffic via chat apps such as Whatsapp and Messenger
- Traffic via e-mail clients like Outlook / G-Mail
- Traffic via native mobile apps
- Traffic via improperly tagged digital advertising
- Traffic via “Dark Search” (In-app searches, image searches, secure searches)
- Referral traffic from a secure (HTTPS) site to a non-secure (HTTP) site
How to Minimise Dark Traffic?
Unfortunately, given the way that Google Analytics tracks source and medium of traffic, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever fully eradicate dark traffic from your reports.
However, you can give yourself the best chance of minimising it by using UTM Parameters (also known as “Campaign Tracking URLs”).
UTM parameters are simply a little string of text that you append to a URL. When your link is clicked, the information from this strings is sent back to Google Analytics and used in the Acquisition reports.
With UTM parameters, you could manually “tag” URLs that you will be using, in an e-mail marketing campaign for example, to explicitly tell Google Analytics that this traffic should be tracked under the “Email” channel (and “email” medium), rather than the “Direct” channel (and “none” medium).
So here’s an example of UTM parameters that I would add to a link in my e-mail newsletter which drives users to my SEO Audits page on this site.
(A) below is the actual URL of the page I want to send traffic to. (B) below is that URL with UTM parameters added to it in order to explicitly tell Google Analytics that it should attribute this traffic to the Source:January-Newsletter and the Medium:email.
Both of these links ultimately point to the exact same page, but if I use (A) instead of (B) in my email links, that email traffic is likely to be mis-attributed by Google Analytics as “Direct” rather than “Email” traffic.
As well as reducing the amount of “Direct” traffic in your reports, the additional benefit is more accurate attribution of conversions to the previously “dark” traffic sources whose conversions had previously been attributed to “Direct”.
You can easily set up UTM parameters yourself using Googles’s URL Builder tool.
There a number of other approaches you can take to shed more light on your “dark traffic” if UTM tagging doesn’t seem to be having the effect that you expect, e.g. Custom Channel Grouping. I’ll get to writing a post about that at some stage soon.
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Thanks for reading.