Direct Traffic

Last updated in July 2022


What is direct traffic?

Direct traffic, also known as “dark traffic,” refers to visits to your website that don’t have a defined source or referring site. The term can be misleading because it sounds like people are either typing in your website URL or coming to your site from a bookmark. But really, much of direct traffic simply has an unidentified referring source. Meaning, you don’t know where your traffic is coming from and can’t identify valuable referral sources.

For maximum insight into your content performance, you want to minimize your direct website traffic. You won’t be able to find every referral source for all your direct visits, but it’s worth doing your best to attribute what you can.

First, understand what causes direct traffic. Then, use an advanced content analytics platform like Parse.ly that can sort through and isolate direct traffic to discover the right attribution.


What can cause direct traffic?

Besides a visitor typing in your URL directly into their browser, there are several reasons traffic might be classified as “direct.”

  • Bookmarks: When website visitors bookmark a webpage, that’s great! It means they want to return frequently and make it easy on themselves. It also means that this traffic will have no referring source. This is a true direct traffic source.
  • Missing or broken tracking code: UTM parameters attribute traffic to a specific digital marketing campaign or referral source. They’re crucial for campaign tracking, so don’t leave them out. And double-check that they’re formatted properly before using them.
  • Incorrect/improper redirection: Broken redirect chains, meta refreshes, and JavaScript-based files are all common issues with redirects. Too many redirects means your content analytics platform often can’t identify your traffic’s original source. Work with your developer to minimize traffic from redirects.
  • Non-web documents: You won’t be able to identify traffic from any documents not connected to the internet, like Microsoft Word files, slide decks, or PDFs. So, keep resources online when you can and set up UTM codes for links in your offline assets so you can attribute that traffic.
  • Dark social: Dark social, coined by Alexis Madrigal in 2012, describes traffic that comes from private social channels like email, text, Slack, or direct social messaging (like a link shared in Facebook messenger as opposed to a public post). Content analytics platforms can’t track this source of traffic since it’s private.
  • HTTP—HTTPS: When a user clicks on a link to an HTTP site from an HTTPS one, you lose referrer information. HTTPS has become the standard, but if your SSL certificate has lapsed, that referral data won’t transfer.
  • Browser misattribution: Browsers don’t always report where a user comes from, even when the traffic source is clear. In one test by Groupon, the company discovered that 60% of direct traffic was actually organic search traffic.

How is organic traffic different from direct traffic?

While direct traffic denotes visits coming to your website without a source, organic traffic has a clear source: unpaid search.

Organic traffic refers to visits to your website that come from a search engine that you didn’t pay for, like unpaid Google search results. So, it also has a specific keyword associated with that traffic. A lot of organic traffic is great news for your SEO marketing efforts.

When analyzing organic performance, drill down to the specific keywords bringing in the most visitors to individual pages. That will help you understand readers’ search intent and user journey better to further optimize that page.


How do you properly attribute direct traffic?

A content analytics tool can help you determine where people are coming from. However, many traditional tools are lackluster when it comes to direct traffic reporting. They don’t help you clear up common traffic attribution questions, and the insights they do provide aren’t actionable.

You need a more advanced content analytics platform like Parse.ly that can reveal direct traffic sources that other analytics software can’t. Parse.ly sorts referral data into categories so you can make sense of direct traffic sources.

And Parse.ly integrates with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest through first-party APIs that uncover more details about your social traffic, like social engagement, than you can get with other analytics platforms.

For example, a traditional analytics platform would label traffic coming from private links on Twitter (like in DMs) as “direct.” But Parse.ly connects to Twitter through an API, which can identify those private links that lead to your website and categorize that traffic as coming from Twitter.

Parse.ly takes it one step further to highlight the original Tweet that referred the traffic, how many pageviews a Tweet drove, and engagement data like retweets.


Attribute your direct traffic for better insights

Your analytics are only doing half the job if you can’t properly attribute your direct traffic. And insights need to be easy to obtain and understand.

Parse.ly’s analytics reports break down traffic sources, pageviews, referrers, and other essential content performance metrics, like engaged time, all on one page. Plus, Parse.ly contextualizes referral traffic by your content’s metadata (like authors, tags, media type, etc.) so you can understand your content performance at a glance and quickly take action based on the insights you glean.

It’s time to upgrade your content analytics. Discover deeper insights and gain clarity on the true source of your direct traffic with Parse.ly. Get a demo to learn more.


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