Direct Traffic in Google Analytics – A Quick Explanation

Theo Bennett - June 24, 2014

Most people think “Direct” traffic in Google Analytics (GA) means that the visitor typed in your web address into a browser. While this could be true, it’s important to understand what direct really means.

Basically any visitor who does not currently have a GA cookie that contains campaign information (anything other than direct; i.e. a Google or Bing referral, etc.) for the browser in which they view your site and comes from a source that does not pass an http referrer (no referrer present) will be categorized as direct.

That’s a lot of hoops to jump through to be classified as direct!

To put it another way: Anyone who has been to your site in the last six months (the length of a campaign duration in GA) via any source but direct, in the browser in which the visit occurs, will not show as direct – even if they type your web site address into a browser directly.

Why so much direct traffic then? Remember that “direct” loosely means no referrer is present, and there’s no campaign cookie of any other source. So when would that happen? Try this scenario:

  1. Click on a paid ad at work
  2. Enter the web address on your phone while you ride the train home
  3. Visit the site via web address from home on your tablet and desktop.

That’s 4 visitors: Three from direct and one from paid search!

Another big cause is not using UTM parameters for marketing initiatives. Email clicks on un-coded links from Outlook = Direct! (No referrer.)

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your direct traffic.  Use GA’s built in segments (the one in the box below) to watch trending over time. Look for increases in bounces etc.

google analytics direct traffic

I like to look at direct bouncing traffic (arrow above, no box) to find rogue bots. If you’d like to learn more, read this post on bot traffic in GA.

Happy Analyzing!

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