D is for Direct traffic. While there are other Ds, like Device or Dashboard, I’ve gone with Direct since it’s so often overlooked or misunderstood.
The stock answer to the question ‘what is Direct traffic’ is that it’s simply visits from people who typed your website into a browser, or went to your site from a browser bookmark. Well, possibly, but not necessarily.
Direct Traffic is any traffic that Google can’t categorise. Google determines traffic source from the Referrer value in the headers exchanged between a browser and a website. If the Referrer is a recognized search engine, Analytics classifies the traffic as Organic; if it’s from a known social source it’ll classify it as Social traffic; if the URL has campaign parameters, Google will use the parameters to override the above. Otherwise it’s a referral. But if it’s none of the above (or if there are no headers), it’s Direct. This is the simplified version, but it points to the essential nature of Direct – it’s simply what Analytics hasn’t been able to classify.
There will be times when Direct peaks dramatically – just after a TV or radio ad, or an offline mention of your business that drives website traffic. That’s great, but like any analytics fiend I’d want to dig deeper and look at how that bonus traffic moved through the website, and take lessons away from this free exposure.
My main point about Direct traffic is that you do need to investigate it. What are the top Landing Pages? Is it New or Returning visits? If it is traffic from people who know you, and have bookmarked you, you would expect the traffic to be Returning visits and the Bounce Rate to be lower than average. And quite often they’re not.
Make a shift in your thinking about Direct traffic – it’s probably come from many, many more places than bookmarks or typed-in URLs. It could be from a clicked link in Skype, Messenger, or WhatsApp. Could be from a link in a mobile app or a PDF. And traffic from a secure site to a non-SSL site will definitely appear as Direct traffic.
So take charge; aim to reduce unknown Direct traffic. You can start by tagging any links that you do have control over. For example, where possible add utm parameters to links to force the Source and Medium.
Like anything in Analytics, face value doesn’t cut it. Take control when you can, and drill down constantly, so you can better understand the data that’ll move your business forward.