Direct Visits In Google Analytics - A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

September 17, 2012
By Jim Gianoglio

Sometimes direct is good. For example, I would have much rather been on a direct flight to Denver for this week’s Google Analytics training than having a layover in Charlotte.

But not everything direct is good. Take visits to your website, for instance. Direct visits are the worst visits you can have (at least from the perspective of a web analyst).

Why, you ask? Because direct visits are a mystery. We don’t know why they came to our site, how they found out about us or whether our marketing and advertising worked.

When you have referral or campaign information about the visits to your site, you can start to see which marketing initiatves are working and which ones you should dump.

Here’s the problem: even with rock solid campaign tagging, you’re still going to get Direct visits. Even worse, the number of those visits that aren’t truly Direct is on the rise.

Let me say that again. Not all of the “Direct” visits to your site are Direct. We have a wolf in sheep’s clothing here.

I don’t see a lot of people talking about this issue (at least publicly) but I expect it to become one of the most important issues in the web analytics industry in the next year or two.

First, let’s look at where these wolves are coming from, then talk about ways to rip off their disguises.

Mobile Devices and Apps

Let’s face it, we’re living in a multi-device world, where people connect with your content not just from a computer, but from their phones and tablets too. And they don’t always use a web browser to pull up your site. They click on links within apps for Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and many, many more.

Many of these visits show up as Direct.

Email

Clicks on (untagged) links within Outlook and other desktop email clients show up as Direct. That’s always been the case. But what’s become more common is for web-based email clients (Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) to use secure browsing (https). Consider your referrer lost – “Direct” visits strike again, more wolves.

Twitter Clients

Tweetdeck and other non-mobile Twitter apps can also show up as Direct, if a link shortener is used (bit.ly or goo.gl, for example).

Instant Messangers

How often do you send a link to someone in Google Talk or Skype? If they click on it, they are a “Direct” visit.

Technical Issues

Aside from things you have little to no control over, there are some causes that you an fix. For example, you may have errors in you code or conflicts with scripts that cause your visitors’ sessions and/or cookies to be reset, resulting in more false Direct visits.

What can you do?

The best way to clean up your data and identify these wolves is to tag them. This means having a stringent campaign tagging plan in place for every marketing effort your company does. Paid search, display ads, email marketing, TV, radio, print, direct mail, you name it – it can (and should!) be tagged. Try this campaign tagging worksheet to get started. It’s a Google Doc spreadsheet – just click File > Make a copy and it’s all yours. If the Make a copy link is grayed out, look at the link in the top right to make sure you’re signed in.

The other important thing is to realize that even that won’t solve 100% of the problem. Although you can use campaign tagging on everything you share, there will always be people who come to your site, like what they see, and copy/paste your URL into Facebook, Twitter, etc. This is especially true for blog posts and other informational content that is more likely to be shared.

One thing that will help is to look for patterns and trends in your data. As Direct visits increase, look for correlations between visits from social media (that you can still identify as such) and direct visits from mobile devices. This will be especially apparent if the direct visits are landing on internal pages with long URLs (that are mot likely not being typed in directly).

Your Turn

What weapons are you using to hunt down these wolves? How has this issue affected your data? The comments are yours!