Why direct traffic channel is so big

Reasons why direct channel traffic segment is so bug

Direct traffic not so long ago was a healthy sign of engagement, as customers and prospects with brand affinity come onto your website without the need for acquisition marketing.

Over the last year one of the main questions, I’m asked regularly by clients is why the direct traffic channel segment is so big.

First we need to be clear on what the ‘direct’ channel label means, and in short no site referrer, no channel. So when a session begins on your website Google Analytics will look for information relating to where that session came from, if it was a link from another website or search engine the document.referrer will show this. GA can then categorise the traffic according the the default channel grouping.  If no referrer exists there isn’t anything GA can use to identify the traffic so it sites in the direct (none) bucket, simple as that when it comes down to what defines Direct traffic in your data.

With recent browser and OS changes, including apples intelligent tracking prevention (ITP) there is nothing so simple when it comes to direct traffic management.

In this article I’ve attempted to provide some clarity on this that you can use to help build a strategy to mitigate direct traffic.

12 possible reasons why direct channel traffic segment is so big

  1. Errors in your marketing governance, untagged or incorrectly tagged marketing campaigns can cause issues. Type in your utm parameters incorrect ‘utmsource=facebook’ instead of the ‘utm_source=facebook’ his data will be process in the direct bucket.
  2. Mobile applications don’t send a referrer. A common scenario: Android app based organic search links often don’t carry referrer. I covered this in more detail here.
  3. Non web based documents like MS Word/PDFs don’t send a referrer.
  4. Dark Social. This traffic can be from any of the networks and results from users sharing links within a closed network like WhatsApp, Facebook messenger or Instagram direct message. In truth there is little you ca do here.
  5. Traffic from email clients, in particular desktop clients like MS Outlook will report as direct if you haven’t used utm parameters on all email links.
  6. A HTTP referral to your HTTPs website will result in the referral string being dropped.
  7. JavaScript redirects have a mixed browser acceptance rate, the ‘window.open’ method won’t include a referrer on Internet Explorer browsers for example.
  8. Other JavaScript methods: ‘location.href’ or ‘location.replace’ won’t guarantee a referral is carried either.
  9. Server redirects put in place during a migration project. Avoid ‘302 redirect’ rules if possible as they sometimes cause the referrer to be dropped. It’s better to use 301 redirects if possible as they have stronger cross browser capabilities.
  10. Even the browser can sometimes drop the referrer. User privacy settings or browser extensions can also mean the referrer isn’t carried in the header request. Incognito mode and similar private browsing will result in the referral information being lost.
  11. Error in your GA scripts, generally only seen when code is placed inline and customised but it is possible for script errors in your Google Analytics tag itself to result in the session cookie to be reset. In this case a session is ended, and a new direct session is created.
  12. Bots are the final point I’d like to add. GA has its own controls in place so the first check you have the bot filter checkbox applied within your admin. Unfortunately, this can’t identify everything so the best approach here is continual monitoring for anomalies if you spot them try to characterize them (screen resolution, location, or 100% bounce rate some common spots), then you can filter them out of your main reporting view.


My advice here is to start with what is in your control and work out from there. Auditing your marketing governance and how you use UTM parameters as a business is always a fruitful exercise to start with.

If you are looking to explore this further or would like to chat around you tagging strategy, please get in touch.