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What does direct and referred traffic mean?

by Jo Shaer, on March 29, 2015

direct_and_referral_traffic_sources_on_analytics.pngThe lovely Tom from Guardian4Security.co.uk asked me this as we went through the Analytics on one of his tools recently.

What does direct and referred traffic mean?  How is that different to organic?

The statistics showed that the bulk of his enquiries, as measured by this particular tool, came via direct or referred, with only a tiny proportion being credited to organic traffic.  But what do those terms mean?

Could he be wasting his money paying us for blogging and on page optimisation?  Fortunately, this trend was not reflected in the Analytics on his actual website.

I have to admit that I was a bit confused and various questions to the people who run the tool produced no definitive answer as it pertained to their tool.  

So I went to Google to discover their definition as it applies to Google Analytics..

First we have to understand what a traffic source and traffic medium actually are and Google explains: 

Source: Every referral to a website has an origin, or source. Possible sources include: “google” (the name of a search engine), “facebook.com” (the name of a referring website), “spring_newsletter” (the name of one of your newsletters) and “direct” (users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your website).

Medium: Every referral to a website also has a medium. Possible medium include: “organic” (unpaid search), “cpc” (cost per click, i.e. paid search), “referral” (referral), “email” (the name of a custom medium you have created) and “none” (direct traffic has a medium of “none”).


Direct Traffic

Direct traffic can mean a lot of things – but here's how Google defines it:

A session is processed as direct traffic when no information about the referral source is available, or when the referring source or search term has been configured to be ignored.

It could mean that:

your visitor typed your website address directly into the browser

your visitor clicked the link to your website in your email footer

your visitor clicked a link inside an email

your visitor clicked a link to your website inside a PDF

your visitor has your site bookmarked

Referred Traffic

Not all referrals from Google.co.uk domains come through organic search or AdWords ad listings. Referrals may come from a variety of sources, including Google Groups posts,base.google.com listings or static pages on related Google sites. Such sessions are tagged as [referral] instead of [organic] or [cpc].

Organic Traffic

Search engine referral data is processed by comparing the hostname and query parameter of the document referrer field to a list of known search engines and their query parameters. The first known search engine that matches both the hostname and query parameter of the document referrer value is used to set the report dimension values.

It is traffic that has not been paid for.

Could Organic Traffic Be Mis-Attributed to Direct and Referred?

According to this post from Search Engine Land, up to 60% of traffic marked as direct could be organic

Using the Groupon site, they ran an experiment where they de-indexed the site completely for about 6 hours.  

They then examined Organic search and Direct traffic by hour and by browser to any page with a “long” URL, like www.groupon.com/local/san-francisco/restaurants, thus excluding the home page and any top level pages that would naturally get a certain amount of direct traffic.  People will type in the home page URL from memory or via a bookmark.

Have a look at their graphs but the results of their testing revealed that a site getting in the ballpark of 50% mobile web traffic, the 60% of the traffic to long URLs reported as Direct is probably Organic traffic from Google.

So there you have it. It's just that the Analytics in this tool is not attributing the traffic correctly.

SEO-Social-Media-Pro-TipWe work with a lot of business owners who tell us that they blog but it does not result in increased traffic or an upturn in leads generated.  Does that resonate with what is happening for your business? Download our guide to Inbound Marketing below.


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