Direct Traffic

Why Should Publishers Care About Direct Traffic?

Amid all the focus on search engine optimization and social sharing, there’s a big opportunity that many online publishers are missing: direct traffic.

The majority of digital publishers don’t know the source of their direct traffic, and that can create both confusion and a feeling of powerlessness. After all, how can you grow a traffic source when you don’t know what that traffic source is? Is website traffic even meaningful without knowing its source?

While it would be nearly impossible to parse out all the referring sources of direct traffic coming to a popular website, there is value in increasing your knowledge of this topic. We hope that you will use this guide to learn more about where direct traffic comes from, how to clean up your source tracking, and how to make your analytics dashboard work better for you.

Direct Traffic 101: What Publishers Should Know

First things first, you can’t be expected to grow your direct traffic if you don’t know what that is. Direct traffic is website traffic that doesn’t have a defined source or a referring website. The term itself comes from Google Analytics, which labels traffic as “direct” when users reach a website by typing in a URL directly, or when tracking technology is absent.

If you’re like most digital news publishers, there’s a good chance that the majority of your traffic comes this way. People know your publication by name, and they are familiar enough with your website that they can type in your URL directly from memory. Most people who arrive at your website this way will appear via your homepage, since that’s usually the easiest URL to remember.

How to Attribute Direct Traffic

Direct traffic gets a bad reputation because its source can be hard (or impossible) to determine. Although a good portion of direct traffic comes from people typing in your URL directly, that’s not always the case. Google Analytics has the tendency to use this label very liberally. There’s a good chance you can actually find the source of some traffic that’s been incorrectly labeled as “direct.”

The top sources of direct traffic are:

  1. Manual entry – Typing a URL into the browser
  2. Dark social – Sharing website links via email or text message
  3. Improper redirects – Chains of redirects that are circular or include incorrect URLs
  4. Links to external documents – Most analytics platforms won’t trace traffic from external links
  5. Broken UTM links – UTM parameters that are broken

Why Traffic Source Matters

We’ve established that it would be impossible to track where every visitor to your website has come from. But what do you do with the above information, knowing that some visitor data that’s attributable isn’t being tracked?

The answer depends on which analytics platform you’re using and how you plan to use the data you collect. Some analytics dashboards are better than others at breaking down traffic sources and the number of pageviews from each source. Although Google Analytics is the most popular analytics platform, it’s not the best solution for every digital publisher.

Knowing how visitors are typing in your URL directly, compared to the number arriving through links that have been shared via text or messaging app, can be incredibly valuable. The information could help you make more strategic marketing and audience outreach decisions. Working with an agency like Web Publisher PRO to clean up your source tracking could be a major benefit here, as well.

One way to track the traffic coming from dark social is by using custom tracked short links. Short links, or shortened versions of full links, pass through a redirect to the full domain. They’re popular on social media sites like Twitter, but services like make it easy to create short links without relying on social media, as well. Short links allow you to track visitors who arrive at your website, even when those visitors are arriving directly, because you know where the short link was posted. (For example, if you used the short link in a Twitter post, then you would know the visitor was coming from Twitter.) This strategy does have its limitations, so it’s worth consulting with your developer on the specifics before going all-in.

To learn even more about the website metrics you should be keeping a close eye on in 2021, check out Which Website Metrics Should Publishers Track?