How do I figure out where direct traffic is coming from in Google Analytics?

If you are a marketer, you know that direct traffic can be a real pain when it comes to attribution. Also know as source “(direct)” medium “(none)” in Google Analytics, this evasive channel is usually not what it seems.

By definition this traffic should come in when people are literally typing in your domain name and going directly to your site, and while Google Chrome does pre-populate domains if you have already visited the site, some of this traffic could actually be coming from an unattributed source that you may already control.

Some may claim that offline marketing (like billboards) would drive people to type in the url directly but I don’t buy that in the age of Google. Most of that traffic will still come in from someone just googling the brand name. The one exception could be a “vanity” url which you hear a lot on podcasts today. Something like “domain.com/try.” That could be legit direct traffic. But most of the time, if you are seeing a lot of direct traffic and it doesn’t make a ton of sense that people would be typing that url in directly – there is probably an issue.

If you think your direct traffic may be over-attributed, you are probably right – but don’t worry – we’ll show you how to track this down and fix it.

The first step is to gut check your amount of direct traffic. If you have a business where customers come back to the website frequently you will have more direct traffic from repeat visitors. However if most of your visitors come once and leave, and your direct traffic is more than ~ 20% something may be off. You can check this in Google Analytics under Audience > Behavior > Frequency & Recency (image below).

Frequency & Recency in Google Analytics
Session count per visitor

In this example since most of the traffic to the website is just a single session it would be odd if direct traffic accounted for more that 20% of the total traffic to the site.

What do I do if direct traffic in Google Analytics looks too high?

Once you have determined that you think your direct traffic is not correct, here are the steps to narrow down where it’s coming from:

  • Filter to only direct traffic by clicking “(direct) / (none)”
Channel breakdown in Google Analytics
  • Add a secondary dimension of “landing page”
Secondary dimension of "landing page"
  • See if these landing pages make sense for people directly typing in a url
  • If they don’t make sense, think about where traffic going to that landing page would be coming from

If you find landing pages that you don’t think that people would ever navigate to directly, odds are they are coming from another channel. The usual culprits we see are mobile apps, an email campaign, or some other piece of marketing out in the wild that does not have Google Analytics tagging on it. Once you figure out where the rogue link lives, add the standard tracking so that you have more accurate attribution data coming into your Google Analytics account!

Here are some other great resources to tackle this problem:

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