Direct Traffic is a Lie in Web Analytics

Direct Traffic seems like such a simple and easy concept to grasp: Direct Traffic is traffic that comes to your site without referral information. A common example would be a bookmark or direct type in of your URL. And that is where the problem comes in: it isn’t that simple.

In reality, direct traffic is really equivalent to “you got me” traffic, as in, “Where did this visitor come from?” “Eh, you got me.”

Anytime you do marketing engagements, you tend to need to tell people “stuff.” This is usually in the form of a report.

I really don’t like reports, but I do like work plans or action items, or even executive summaries. Reports are big, ugly beasts that are expected to look nice, be insightful, and justify your reason for existence-but come for free. In reality, you can spend 3 or 4 times more resources churning out a report than you will actually doing the work (charts, graphs, formatting). However, that isn’t the bad part of a report (although it certainly isn’t the good part of a report.) The bad part is when you have ambiguity front and center in a report. A great example of that is measuring “Direct Traffic” in a marketing engagement.

Direct Traffic could have come from a variety of sources, which certainly includes bookmarks and direct type in. However, I have see tons of Web Trends reports with inflated direct traffic numbers due to redirects or due to moving from a secure page to a non-secure page. In all those cases, the common thread is that in a report they come up as “direct traffic.” Unknown traffic, or unverified source, is probably a better description. Don’t believe me? Think about some of the types of direct traffic that exist:

  • Type In of URL
  • Bookmark
  • Click from a poorly done link in Flash
  • Moving from secure to non-secure page
  • Clicking on an email from an email program that isn’t web based
  • Redirect
  • Proxy or firewall stripping out referral info
  • Link from a document
  • Customized browser that is suppressing information

That is a lot of Direct Traffic that isn’t so direct. So, what do you do about it? First, I suggest you rename the traffic to unknown or unverified or a similar approach to be transparent in reporting. Secondly, I suggest you start digging in on browser behavior with any redirects on your site, as that is certainly something that you want to understand. Thirdly, when in doubt, tag it. Use a campaign code for your documents and for your emails as you control those.


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