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Direct traffic: not as straightforward as you would hope

direct trafficBy - Head of Digital Marketing. 

The idea for this blog came from a discussion with a client of ours, who saw a decrease in direct traffic this past year and wanted to understand why, especially seeing that other types of traffic had increased. Knowing that their business is booming and that they do both digital and regular marketing, it is legitimate to wonder about this direct traffic issue. I will not give you any straight answer in this blog because I don't have any, only food for thought. Do feel free to share with me your opinion though!

In theory, it's easy

By default, when looking in Google Analytics you can see three types of traffic: direct, referral and search, which can be divided into various sources, such as direct, organic, paid, referral, social, email and sometimes RSS, and/or a 'mysterious' 'Other'

In theory, it should be easy: direct traffic comes from people who know the exact address of your website or use a bookmark, search traffic comes from search engines, and referral traffic comes from external websites linking back to you. Right. Hold your horses. Direct traffic also takes into account traffic from emails, when they are opened from a desktop service such as Outlook. This means that you can get a lot of traffic from newsletters, but only a couple of visits from what Google Analytics tells you is email traffic; as a consequence, to get proper data and know the reach of your email marketing campaigns, you're much better off checking the stats given by the service you use to send emails (Mailchimp & co). I must say I find quite confusing to be given email stats that are so unreliable and patchy - I'd rather not have any. However, I do understand that it's probably tricky for Google to determine whether a link was clicked from a bookmark or a desktop client, knowing that the first information they would have is that you entered the website, since you were offline until then. Still, I like things to be neat.

I have given a (more or less) official answer above as to what direct traffic is, so if we follow this, then the loss in direct traffic is linked to either a decrease in newsletters being sent (or a fall in their reach or success), or a decrease in the number of people who type directly this client's web address in the address bar of their browser. 

Direct or search?

No doubt, I am not the only one wondering about the link between direct and organic traffic and surely won’t be the last one. One could think that direct traffic is when someone knows a website, and search traffic is when someone doesn't. Maybe it once was the case. If you knew someone's name or web address, you visited directly their website, without searching for it, and if you needed a service or didn't know the web address of a company, then you'd look it up.

However, with browsers now auto filling results, and address bars acting as search bars, how much direct traffic is lost to search traffic (or vice versa)? Arguably, if you've already visited a website, the browser will make it easier for you to visit it again. That would be clear direct traffic. What about typos, a change in habits, or sheer laziness? If you type in your browser's address bar "orantec" instead of "orantec.uk", should you have been direct traffic? You knew our name, but just didn't go as far as to type the final .uk - but isn't it what people tend to do now? Rely on search engines to finish their sentences?

One could argue that I'm splitting hairs - it's my specialty. Nonetheless, I do believe that when you see anything decreasing you should enquire about it, and it's important to know what's going on and understand where an issue stems from if you want to fix it or improve it.

What do you think? Is direct traffic losing ground against search traffic? Or if someone's not typing a website's full address in their browser, then do you think it's only fair to see this counted as search traffic? After all, that visitor did find the website through a search engine, and if that website ranked high enough to be found, it's thanks to Digital Marketing – and to our close working relationship with our client!

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