Tuesday, 29 January 2013

What is Direct Traffic?

It is a pain. It is anonymous and it is often a sizeable proportion of your traffic.  Yet the received wisdom and standard description is that it is traffic which came from users typing in your URL directly in their browser.  What is it? "Direct traffic".

Direct Traffic:  What it Isn't

It isn't search, and it can't be confirmed as traffic clicking a link from another website. It almost counts as a miscellaneous bucket. Here I would like to summarise what it might be, what it isn't and how to improve reporting for it.  Is it as good as Avinash Kaushik says, when he says that direct traffic is a good thing and we should look to improve it?  I have found, in my experience, that it's not.  If direct traffic was traffic without a referring URL and I could be assured that it was people typing in my URL in the browser bar, then I'd be happy.  But my experience shows otherwise - and historically it's been a matter of some consternation as I look to find out what it really is.

If it were the result of the five factors that Avinash suggests, then I'd be very pleased.  Here they are:

    1. People who are your existing customers / past purchasers, they'll type url and come to the site or via bookmarks.
    2. People familiar with your brand. They need a solution and your name pops up into their head and they type.
    3. People driven by word of mouth. Someone recommends your business / solution to someone else and boom they show up at the site. Uninvited, but we love them!
    4. People driven by your offline campaigns. Saw an ad on TV, heard one on radio, saw a billboard and were motivated enough to typed the url and show up.
    5. Free, non-campaign, traffic.

Direct Traffic:  What It Often Is

However a better definition of direct traffic is 'referrer not known' or 'referrer information lost'.  It can be lost in a number of ways, but the main ones are javascript redirects, or redirects that go via an ad agency's server.  As a website analyst, I was often asked to track online marketing campaigns that went live 'last Monday', and sure, there was a spike in traffic, which came from adagency.com (insert your ad agency here), because the ad agency were also tracking impressions and clicks, and kindly stamped themselves all over the traffic source. 

"Yes we've seen an increase in traffic.  Yes, it matches the timing of your online campaign.  No, I can't tell you where it came from.  No, I don't have the telephone number for your online agency.  Do you?"

Other examples are flash applications, documents (such as Word or Excel documents that have links in them), and some automated traffic, like spiders or bots (and not the 'good' ones, which don't process tags.

The way around it?

If you always ensure that your inbound campaign links are passing campaign or source information, or both, through URL query strings (whether that's ?cid=online, or ?utm= or ?marketing=online) then you will still be able to capture the referring site information, even if the brower isn't passing it.  Google Analytics has a semi-automatic process that will allow you to build your own campaign URLs.

You won't usually find "Direct Traffic" in a promotional or merchandising
screenshot for a tool... it probably means the tool hasn't classed the traffic
as anything else.
Alternatively, you can start to look at the visitor data for the direct traffic.  Previously, I have used Adobe's Discover tool to isolate "direct" traffic and start segmenting it.  Where, geographically, does it come from?  For example, does the traffic increase match an offline campaign in London?  Were people really typing in your URL?

No?  How about drilling down even further?  I have found cases where direct traffic was actually an automated checking tool - an example would be Gomez - which was pinging the site every 15 minutes, without fail, day and night, and always from the same IP addresses. 

It took some detective work (start by Googling the IP address) to track an IP address back to the performance monitoring tool, but once it was done, it was easy enough to block the IP - after making sure that we weren't paying the tool providers.  Alternatively, if you are, and you do see their traffic in your reports, there are ways to screen them out from your analytics (without blocking them from the page).

The results?  Direct traffic went down.   Total traffic went down.  So far, so good for site targets.  However, we did some beneficial results, which supported another piece of work I was doing:  reducing bounce rate.  The automated traffic was bouncing off various pages of the site (in particular, the home page) at a constant, relentless and nagging rate.  Once we blocked the automated traffic that we were sure came from the performance tracking tool, the bounce rate fell.  Dramatically.

So, I reduced the volume of direct traffic - but I improved reporting quality and traffic quality.  If you're looking to improve direct traffic performance (but not quantity ;-) then I suggest the steps I took.  This will help you to improve your conversion figures for the segment, and overall, and that's got to be a good thing.

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