Bucket loads of Direct Traffic doesn’t always mean you have a strong brand.

Bucket loads of Direct Traffic doesn’t always mean you have a strong brand.

Bucket loads of Direct Traffic doesn’t always mean you have a strong brand.

Large amounts of Direct Traffic equals a strong brand – it’s one of the biggest analytics myths that you’ll hear. You can hold Google Analytics and the people who write their help pages for propagating one of the biggest myths in digital – that Direct website traffic and brand strength are intertwined.

Somewhere along the line, Google defined the source of Direct traffic in GA as “users that typed your URL directly in to their browser, or who had bookmarked your site”.That’s not untrue, but it’s not exactly accurate either and as data freaks, we don’t like.  Let’s look at what your Direct Traffic report actually shows, how it’s damaged by dark data and what this means for your brand performance.

What is Direct Traffic, ACTUALLY?

Google’s definition of ‘Direct’ traffic is accurate up to a point, but it stops short of an additional aspect that would help to better explain direct traffic.  Yes, certainly people who have typed your URL or who have bookmarked your site should and do fall in to the category of ‘Direct’ users.

But they miss another aspect to Direct, which is users from a source that GA can’t attribute to a referral source.

Simply put, if GA can’t apply a user to a known or identifiable source, then it’s lumped in to Direct.  When links can be embedded in to emails, instant messages, apps and more besides then the bucket that is ‘Direct’ traffic can start to fill very quickly.

Traffic that appears in Google Analytics that has no clear source but can’t be viewed as genuinely ‘Direct’ is known as ‘Dark Traffic’.  That is not to say it’s bad or poor traffic, it’s just traffic that is not direct, has come from somewhere but is being shown as direct.

Dark traffic

There are a number of sources that can generate dark traffic.  Partly it’s a technological problem, in other ways, it’s a very human challenge.  Some of the sources that GA can’t track include:

  • In-app links
  • Text messages
  • Instant Messages
  • Social platforms
  • Incognito/secure browsers
  • URL shorteners

It’s a growing problem.  We analysed all of our customer GA accounts and found that client sites range from 7.5% dark traffic to 32% dark traffic.  The average across all the sites we manage was 18.4%.  Averages increase when we look at mobile traffic, where the switch from HTTP to HTTPS is most commonly seen place and browsers strip the referrer data also.

Analysing the right traffic

Knowing about Dark traffic and the challenges that it creates helps put Direct, as a channel, in to context.  GA does give a few tools that can clean up a lot of your traffic with the judicious application of custom or GA’s own segments.  If your marketing strategy includes a significant use of aggregators, then cross-domain tracking is a step towards achieving some data clarity.

To get a clearer sense of your real direct traffic, then use your ‘Landing page’, report filtered by ‘Source’ as a starter.  Filter out any URLs that clearly aren’t ones that people wouldn’t typically type.  Homepage traffic is likely to be real, Direct traffic, but some common sense applied to the rest of the pages in your report will quickly filter out the rest.

GA gives you the percentage of overall sessions and views and that’s a strong indicator of the brand’s overall strength.  Our strongest brands will see a large percentage of their direct traffic to the homepage – one sits over 90% – while smaller brands can be as low as 30% for their homepage.

When we want to understand how strong a brand is, we’ll also look at the number of branded searches that are being carried out and the traffic and clicks they generate.  Check your organic and paid performance for brand terms to give a true, overall picture of the brand’s strength.

When your next performance review happens and the old, Google defined version of Direct traffic is applied then take in to account what we’ve told you in this post.  Your brand strength is in there, it just needs a bit of investigation.

If you need help cutting through the noise of your performance data and achieving some real clarity, why not give us a call?

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