Have you spotted a Direct traffic spike in Google Analytics which you can’t account for? In this post I’ll explain how to try and figure out what caused it, give you some examples of common causes and suggest some methods of tracking traffic which will help to make things clearer next time around.
Direct traffic can be annoying as it’s more of a catch-all than a specific channel. By combining multiple, unrelated, sources it can be confusing and unclear, particularity for those new to Google Analytics. The good news is that there are some pretty useful ways of figuring out what in particular lead to a jump in Direct traffic as well as some ways of ensuring traffic is grouped elsewhere when possible.
What Is Direct Traffic?
In order to figure out what has caused your spike in Direct traffic we need to first understand what Google Analytics counts as “Direct”. Like other channel groupings, Direct sessions can be a mixture of a mixture of sources. Unlike other groupings these sources can be quite drastically different which is why Direct is often the most confusing grouping. Direct Traffic covers the following:
- People entering your URL into their browser
- People clicking on a bookmark in their browser
- Dark Social traffic (there’s a full explanation of this here but a good example is someone clicking on a link to your site in a WhatsApp message)
- Email marketing – If not correctly setup, clicks from emails can be miss-attributed to Direct
- People clicking on a link from an offline document
- People going to a non-secure (http) site from a link on a secure (https) site
- Organic traffic being accidentally counted as Direct
- Incorrectly installed Google Analytics tracking code
- A cross-domain tracking issue – E.G. incorrectly implemented cross domain tracking where your users are sent to another domain such as an off-site shopping cart.
- Anything else – If Google can’t figure out how your traffic arrived it may place it in Direct (or “Other”).
How to Interpret Direct Traffic Spikes
The best way to get clear idea of what has caused a spike in Direct traffic is to look at all the bits of information Google Analytics gives you beyond the channel grouping.
Once we have a clearer idea of what the bulk of site visitors,who arrived during the spike had in common, we’ll be in a better position to understand the spike. We should be able to tie the spike in traffic to a piece of activity, either by us or someone else.
Clues to Look For
If you’re familiar with using Google Analytics this bit should be pretty easy for you. If you’re less familiar I’ve included some links which show you how to get at the information you need.
Here’s what we’re going to look at:
When did the traffic spike occur?
If your traffic counts as a “spike” it will probably appear suddenly one day. Find out which day it was and think about what happened on that day. Was there some press coverage for your brand? Did you make changes to the site? Might someone of sent an email update to your clients?
Which page on your site did the users land on?
Look at the Landing Page and see if this gives you any clues about where the traffic came from. Was it to a blog post? Or your homepage?
What type of device(s) where the site visitors using?
Do all of the users appear to be using the same type of device? Are they all
Where in the world where the users located?
If all the visitors are in the same location this may suggest a link has been shared between a group of people. Looking at the country or city the visitors are located in can help you to narrow down the source.
Connecting the Data to the Cause of the Traffic Spike
Once you have all of the data above, and anything else you can find in Google Analytics, you can start to think about what this information may be telling you.
The best way to help you to understand how to tie in the data you found in Google Analytics, to the activity which caused it, is to give you some common causes. These are all real-world examples which I’ve seen over the years:
Poorly Tracked Email Marketing
If you’re seeing a regular pattern of Direct traffic spikes the first thing to rule out is Email Marketing activity. You would be surprised how often this is the cause of a monthly or weekly spike.
If properly tracked your email activity will show up in the Email grouping in Google Analytics. If you’re using your email system straight out of the box, or an old system with limited tracking options, you may find that email traffic is not properly tracked.
The easiest way to figure this out, of course, is to see if the spikes in traffic align with the dates and times the emails are sent.
An Untrackable Link
If the spike appears to have been a one off, which slowly tails off, it may be due to someone sharing a link with a group of people, in a way which prevents proper tracking. In my experience this will often be to a single page and probably a specific one rather than your homepage.
For example, if I were to share a link in the Optix Slack channel, and everyone was to click the link around the same time, someone might spot a small spike in Direct traffic.
Incorrect Cross Domain Tracking
If your customer’s user journey involves going off site and then coming back (for example if your shopping cart checkout takes place on a different site and then users come back to you once they’ve paid) you’ll need to have cross-domain tracking set up.
If this is not correctly set up you may see all of your Ecommerce transactions attributed to Direct traffic. This is because the user’s visit is split into multiple sessions one of which refers to the user to the next as Direct. This is a real pain as it means that your Ecommerce data is not connected to the correct source or marketing activity.
Cross domain tracking is a whole topic for another day but this is a good place to start if you have an issue.
Re-attributing Direct Traffic
As you’ll see from some of the above examples, a lot of what ends up in Direct traffic could be more accurately counted elsewhere. There are some things you can do to ensure future traffic spikes are correctly attributed. Here’s a quick checklist to consider:
Tracking Email Marketing in Google Analytics
If your Email marketing system doesn’t allow you to integrate Google Analytics you might want to consider using a better platform. If you want to manually track links use the Google URL builder, see below.
Use Google’s Campaign URL Builder
Use Google’s Campaign URL Builder tool to create bespoke URLs with tracking parameters appended to them which integrate with Google Analytics. The resulting URLs are really useful as they can be used almost anywhere.
Simply enter the information you want to use and the tool will provide you with a URL with custom parameters which feed into Google Analytics. The results can be seen under Acquisition > Campaigns.
Check Your Google Analytics Installation
As noted above, a faulty Google Analytics installation can cause tracking issues, including other forms of traffic being tracked as Direct. To check your Google Analytics installation is to follow these steps:
Use Google Tag Assistant to review your code and see if it’s operational. If you have cross-domain tracking set up use the Recordings function to record a journey through the sites and see if it’s all tied together in one session or split into multiple.
Check Your Redirects
Review all the redirects you’re using on your site to make sure they’re not set up in way which strips out referrer information. Crawl your site using Screaming Frog and review the Response Codes tab.
If you want to review individual redirect, including those pointing to your site from other sites you can do so with a Chrome Plugin. I use Redirect Path from Ayima.
Hopefully this post has helped you to get to the bottom of that odd spike in traffic which you couldn’t account for. Even if you haven’t managed to figure it out this time consider the tracking tips above to try and reduce how much of your traffic ends up shown as “Direct”.
If you have any questions, or want to suggest any other methods you use to better understand Direct traffic, drop me a note on Twitter.