Understanding Direct Traffic: What It Is & How to Decode It

There’s a big blind spot in the world of content analytics: direct traffic.

Marketers often don’t know the source(s) of their direct traffic, which leaves them a bit powerless. They can’t determine how to attract more of the traffic or whether it’s even meaningful without knowing where it comes from.

It’s impossible to parse out all referring sources of your direct traffic (and, in fact, it’s not recommended). But it is worth building your knowledge around this mysterious topic. Use this guide to learn where direct traffic comes from, clean up your source tracking, and keep your content analytics actionable.

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What Is Direct Traffic?

Direct traffic, also known as “dark traffic,” doesn’t have a defined source or referring site. In other words, it is traffic to your site that’s missing a referrer. The term “direct traffic” is best known from Google Analytics. Its polar opposite is organic traffic, which has not only a referral source but also a keyword that generated the traffic.

Content analytics platforms may label traffic as direct because of user behavior—such as reaching a site by typing a URL—or because tracking technology is absent.

Parse.ly’s Dashboard breaks out direct traffic as a referrer.

Direct traffic often makes up the majority of a website’s traffic. Because direct traffic is so common, it’s built a reputation for being the “catch-all” traffic category on analytics platforms.

Criteo reports that over 30% of traffic to news sites is direct traffic.

Marketers’ knee-jerk assumption is that direct website traffic should ultimately be zero. Make no mistake: It isn’t possible to sort through all direct traffic to find every referral source.

But you can do your best to attribute at least some of your direct traffic. Content analytics platforms are especially helpful with this investigation process. For now, you can start by learning about the main types of direct traffic sources.

6 Surprising Sources of Direct Website Traffic (& How to Better Track Them)

Many content marketers assume direct traffic comes from users typing addresses in a URL bar. They think people need to be reaching sites “directly” for it to be direct traffic, pointing to a maybe-arbitrary classification in Google Analytics.

Of course, that is one source of direct traffic. But there are other ways it can be generated.

Six sources of direct traffic

Here, we’ll detail those sources and how you can minimize direct traffic from them.

1. Bookmarks and Manual Website Entry

As long as bookmark and URL bars exist on browsers, sites will likely have direct traffic. Bookmarking and manual website entry lead to direct traffic since there is no referral site that sent users. Without that traceable referral source, analytics platforms mark the traffic as direct.

Bookmarking may generate direct traffic, but it’s largely a positive sign for sites. Users love your site so much that they want to reach it in one click.

The same goes for manual website entry. Your brand is so memorable that users don’t need search engines to get there. Considering these factors, you have no reason to minimize bookmarking and manual website entry for the sake of cutting direct traffic.

2. Dark Social

Coined by The Atlantic in 2012, “dark social” includes sharing links via email, texting, or direct social messaging.

An email that would come through as direct traffic since the link to Parse.ly was shared privately, sans referral source.

Content analytics platforms can’t track this link sharing because it’s private, not public. Social media platforms have only made publicly shared posts as datasets available for content analytics platforms to pull from via APIs (unless they form closer first-party API partnerships like Parse.ly has, but more on that in a bit).

When you want to share a link on Facebook with a friend, the option to share privately is at the end of the list. This design choice minimizes the potential for direct traffic and improves tracking for advertisers.

Finding sources for “dark social” traffic is particularly difficult. You have to rigorously track social and email campaigns through UTM parameters to get to the bottom of it. Encourage followers to share links publicly so you have less traffic coming from dark social sources, and be aware of a cousin to dark social growing in prominence: shadow traffic.

UTM parameters attribute traffic to a specific campaign or referral source. In the URL below, everything highlighted is UTM parameters used for attribution. UTM parameters themselves facilitate improved tracking, but if they are broken or absent it’s difficult to attribute traffic.

Every campaign should use UTM parameters, but sometimes marketers skip creating one if they’re in a rush. Don’t make this mistake—UTM parameters are critical for tracking the sources of your campaign traffic and determining ROI.

To monitor your traffic, check out our best practices for campaign tracking via UTMs. Beyond that, we have some general pointers for campaign tracking:

  • Set a to-do to create UTM parameters for campaign landing page (potentially as part of a broader project checklist).
  • Regularly audit your UTM parameters
  • Avoid spaces in UTMs, as they can cause your tracking to malfunction.

To be a data-driven marketer, you can’t neglect this step (especially for one-time campaigns). Build a habit of adding UTM parameters before shipping a campaign so you’re set to track your traffic sources.

4. Broken or Improper Redirects

Even if you have UTM tracking set up on links, you still may not be able to trace back traffic sources’ referral sites if the page(s) involved contain these common issues with redirects:

  • Broken redirect chains: Chains of redirects that are circular and point back to the beginning page or include incorrect or nonexistent URLs.
  • Meta refreshes: Refreshes of pages done on the website level, versus the server level and are associated with poor user experience and decreased tracking ability as they wipe referral data.
  • JavaScript-based redirects: The typical 301 redirects are always the preferred method over JavaScript-based redirects, which also frequently wipe referral data while redirecting.

With too many redirects, Google Analytics often can’t trace the traffic back to its original source. Or, the UTM parameters and referrer information might be stripped out with so many changes to the destination.

Work with your developer to minimize direct traffic from redirects. Can you streamline your redirect protocol? If you recently made a switch to another domain, can you discontinue redirects from the old URL (assuming it’s not receiving significant traffic)? To read more on how to minimize redirects, check out this guide from the ahrefs blog.

5. Redirects from HTTPS → HTTP

Referral data doesn’t transfer when a user clicks a link on an HTTPS site to visit an HTTP one. This can happen if your HTTPS certificate lapsed, or if a referral source recently switched their protocol to HTTPS.

If you use the HTTP protocol and most of your traffic is direct, consider switching your website to HTTPS. Your traffic will be easier to track, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing your site and users are secure. With proper traffic tracking and improved security, the HTTPS protocol is a win-win for your site.

Content analytics platforms can’t trace traffic from external links—including links shared in Microsoft Word files, slide decks, white papers, PDFs, and other “offline” documents. Once a resource is downloaded and accessed offline (when JavaScript is not involved), the links it includes can’t be tracked.

Keep as many of your resources online so you’re able to track traffic on these pages. Instead of sharing a downloadable PowerPoint, you might upload the slides to a blog post. If you do provide offline resources, set up UTM codes for every link in that asset.

How to Attribute Your Direct Traffic with Content Analytics Software

Despite its popularity, Google Analytics offers weak direct traffic reporting. The tool isn’t able to clear up common traffic questions for users, and the data it does provide isn’t terribly actionable.

With that said, there are content analytics tools that can help you figure out where your site visitors are coming from. Parse.ly can unlock additional traffic information from social platforms. We visualize and sort referrer data into categories, so users can make sense of their traffic sources.

Parse.ly integrates with Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest through first-party APIs. With this connection, we can track both engagement and traffic coming from these sources (there’s lots of details you can see about social media traffic in Parse.ly).

Say, for example, you want to identify all website traffic coming from Twitter. Google Analytics would label the traffic source as direct or Twitter, depending on whether it’s coming from public or private links.

Parse.ly takes that tracking several steps further. The tool identifies any traffic that comes from Twitter, regardless of whether it’s coming from a public or private link. Parse.ly then breaks down that traffic to highlight engagement on the social platform, such as retweets and page views from Twitter users.

Parse.ly automatically sorts referrers into categories.
With Parse.ly, easily see what content is causing the most referrals or engagement.

The way we see it, your analytics are no good if they’re not easily understandable and shareable. That’s why the Parse.ly dashboard breaks down traffic sources, the number of page views from each source, grouping referrers by channel, and other key content performance data like engaged time—all on one page.

With this visualization, your referrers are contextualized by the metadata of your content (sections, tags, authors, word count, media type, etc). This is a big edge Parse.ly users have, understanding their content performance at a glance and the ability to quickly take action based on the data.

Clear Your Direct Traffic Questions with Parse.ly

Curious what insights Parse.ly can uncover about your website’s direct traffic? Give Parse.ly a shot with our 30-day free trial.