What is direct traffic?

Have you seen 'Direct Traffic' in your web analytics and wondered what it means? Direct traffic is a pageview (a visit to a webpage) without the referrer header sent. Sounds too technical? Press on, it's not as bad as you think!

When a browser visits a web page, it makes a request to the server for a specific resource (URL) and includes some data, called HTTP Headers (More info).

Headers attach small data to each request that passes technical information. They can include data indicating what browser you are using (User-Agent), what file formats the browser accepts (Accept) or what language to send (Accept-Language). (More about HTTP headers) The header that determines Direct traffic is called the Referrer header, which contains the page address that the user was on before this one. It answers the question "What page did I follow to get here?"

When there is no value provided by the Referrer header, the traffic is considered Direct: the user went directly to the site and did not come from another site.

You can see your own live headers using the Chrome Inspector or Firefox Network Monitor.

Why is direct traffic annoying for marketing analytics?

Direct traffic tells you almost nothing about where the user came from; it tells you only "this pageview didn't have one before it". Not too helpful. This is why nearly all web analytics tools have options to 'ignore direct traffic', which devalues direct traffic and avoids giving conversion credit to direct if it can be avoided. If you can't do anything with the credit, why bother assigning it? Let's fix this and give the credit to more deserving channels.

Popular sources of direct traffic

As we learned above, direct traffic happens when the Referrer header is empty, but why is it empty? Before we can get a handle on direct traffic, we need to know when it occurs. Here are the most common causes of direct traffic:

  1. User enters the url into the browser or follows a bookmark: The usual interpretation of direct traffic is when a user types the domain into the URL bar or uses a bookmark. If you have lots of repeat users (like a SaaS business with user logins), this may be totally normal. This also happens if they follow a link in a PDF or in a Word document: the browser opens with that address.
    This can be an intentional and valuable source of traffic depending on your marketing efforts. For example, offline marketing like word of mouth campaigns, billboards, tv, radio, etc. can cause people to type in the domain, as intended. These campaigns should always have a vanity url (e.g. example.com/tv) or a coupon code to help identify the source.
  2. Email Links: Links in emails that are opened from another application such as a mail client (e.g. not a browser) will look like direct. In fact, any time an application opens the browser to visit a page, it will be direct because you didn't follow a web page to get there, you just opened the browser to go directly there.
  3. Navigating from HTTPS to HTTP pages : When following links from a secure page to an insecure page, the referrer is omitted. This is part of the HTTP Standard, so it's expected behavior.

What can be done to reduce and reorganize direct traffic?

  1. Users entering the URL: Not much can be done here. These are super-engaged and often repeat visitors. You've earned their traffic, enjoy it!
  2. Email Traffic: Add UTM tags! These links are controlled by you and you spend time to craft them into a powerful message: you deserve credit for them.
  3. HTTPS links: Your site should use HTTPS. Once your server uses HTTPS, this shouldn't affect you. There are no reasons not to use HTTPS/SSL. There are even free certificates to make it even easier. If you have sub sites on other properties using HTTP, you can use this workaround>

Digging in to your data

It's important to use both qualitative and quantitative views of customer behavior to help reduce direct traffic. Use the top-level metrics to see how much credit the Direct medium is receiving. If it's alarming, check out individual customer flows to see which pages and flows those customers are using to start their sessions. If the url is very long and you get a lot of direct traffic there, it's unlikely that folks are typing it in, and you should research how they got there and how to fix it going forward.