Understanding Direct Traffic in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Understanding Direct Traffic in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Direct traffic in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is traffic unaccounted for its source and may include users arriving by typing the website URL directly.

By: Mussarat Nosheen | 8 mins read
Published: Oct 20, 2023 12:40:37 AM | Updated: May 24, 2024 01:46:01 AM

Have you ever peeped at your GA4 report and wondered if the direct traffic in GA4 is a blessing or a nuisance?

Newsflash, you are not alone. 

Okay, if people don’t have to bother clicking a link to visit you, this is good news, right? They like your site enough to come back over and over. 

That is why they are they are typing your URL directly to reach your website. Well, it may or may not be that. 

The answer lies in the details and context. Remember to look for context. 

Let us unpack direct traffic for you and help you see the good and bad sides of the channel.

What is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics 4?

As the name suggests, direct traffic includes the users who directly access your website without searching Google or following any link on the internet. 

But the definition is a little more complicated than that. Direct traffic in Google Analytics 4 includes users coming by;

  • Directly typing in the URL
  • Saved bookmarks
  • Links embedded in PDFs 
  • Links that do not pass the user information
  • Unclear sources

As you would notice, there is a range of sources grouped under the direct traffic, including the ones that GA4 cannot figure out. 

So, is it good or bad?

Is Direct Traffic in Google Analytics 4 Good or Bad?

Good Direct Traffic in GA4

Direct traffic is inevitable. People do not always follow some link to your website. Once they become familiar with your product or service, they can bookmark or visit by typing your URL.

Also, as they type, Google helps them autocomplete the URL. 

Generally speaking, direct traffic between 10% - 20%, direct traffic is a mark of your brand's popularity and is totally a good thing to have. 

Bad Direct Traffic in GA4

Sometimes your direct traffic stats may be too good to be true. It is because they are. 

An exceptionally inflated direct traffic can hardly be good news. It reveals problems in your UTM tags, improper configuration, broken links, or other issues that mess up source attribution. 

Therefore, a good time to take a long hard look at your system configuration and other technical aspects of your GA4 property. 

Where to Find Direct Traffic in Google Analytics 4?

Now that we understand what direct traffic is, it is time we learn how we can access it. 

There are a few options for you to find direct traffic in GA4, we will discuss them below one by one. 

Acquisition Report

Since the metric pertains to the users acquired, it makes sense to look for it in the Acquisition Reports. 

In Google Analytics 4, go to Reports > Acquisition > Traffic Acquisition. 

Scroll down to the bottom of the page to the tabular report, where you will find the stats next to the channel title Direct. 

Although you can try the same in the User Acquisition report as well, most users find Traffic Acquisition to be more useful, since it relies on session data instead of event data. 

Add Dimensions and Apply Filter

If you wish to take a better look at your direct traffic, you can try a few things. 

Begin by typing “direct” in the search menu of the table and then add a new dimension with the plus sign next to the Session default column. 

For example, adding the Landing Page + Query String can reveal the purpose of these users for visiting. 

Adding the dimension “Session keyword” can also shed light on what brought these users to your website. 

Remember

Use compatible dimensions for the User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition report. So, for the Traffic Source dimension, you can only choose the ones starting with the word “Session”. And for User Acquisition choose the ones starting with the word “First”.

Build Comparison and Add Filter

You can find more insights about your direct traffic by building comparisons. A great place to do so is the Engagement Report. 

Go to GA4 > Reports > Engagement > Pages and screens.

At the top of all the report cards, you find the “Add comparison” option. Click through this, and a window titled “Build filter” will open as a result.

Select “Session source” as your dimension, “exactly match” as your Match Type, “(direct)” as your Value, and click Apply. 

The stats appearing next to the orange bars show the results from the comparison we just built here. 

What Are the Sources of Direct Traffic?

Manual Entry

Probably the best-understood cause of direct traffic in GA4, manual entry is when a user accesses a website by directly typing the website’s URL. 

Many would assume all direct traffic to be coming from this source, which is not true. 

So, how come people visit by manually entering the website URL?

It is when they have developed enough of your awareness and most likely have been visiting you in the past.

When all your system configurations are working properly, it is a beneficial form of direct traffic. 

Autofill 

The source of traffic comes from users typing in your URL and helped by Google with autocomplete of the URL.

It comes from users who have already visited you in the past, likely by some Google ad or social ad or by landing at your website as a result of a Google search. 

And they have enough appreciation for your site to remember your URL and try to return by attempting to type the URL. 

Relying on the cookies and cache data, Google recognizes what you are looking for and auto-fills the URL.

Such traffic is predominant for the homepage of the sites with a strong brand presence. Also, some of these users could be internal employees who visit the site too often by autofill. 

Bookmark 

Now, if users find your content, product, or service useful enough, they might want to revisit it more conveniently. 

That is when they bookmark your website or specific web pages to revisit later.  

This form of direct traffic too is an indicator of a strong brand presence and value creation for the users. 

Missing Or Broken Tracking Code

Some of the website traffic may be attributed as direct if Google Tags have not been configured properly on your website. 

The root cause of the issue arises either at the website development or new page creation stage, where the installation of a Google tag is missed. 

Or it is installed but not properly configured. 

As a result, when a user first lands on a page with a broken or missing tracking code and then moves to another page, Google Analytics 4 records it as direct traffic. 

Incorrect Redirect

When your website redirects a user on your website from one page to another but fails to pass on the UTM parameters, the link is lost.

Consequently, GA4 attributes the user to direct traffic. 

Two types of redirects can prove to be particularly nasty for source attribution. 

The first one is the Meta refresher, HTML tags that prompt the browser to automatically refresh or redirect to a new URL after some time.

JavaScript can also prompt redirects to a different page after a given time. 

In either case, improper redirect implementation, including implementing a secure link to the redirected page but not on the original, referrer information will not be passed. 

Vanity URL

Another problematic redirect is the one originating from a vanity URL. It is a shortened URL typically created for a marketing campaign, 

Easier to remember, a vanity URL helps in the marketing process.

But on the downside, because the URL has to redirect to a full URL, it is easier to miss adding a tag there. 

Secure to Non-secure Domain (HTTPs to HTTP)

Referrer data is lost when a user comes from a secure page (HTTPS) to your website that happens to be non-secure (HTTP). 

The very purpose of HTTPS is to keep transfers between websites secure. 

So, it is designed to not pass information when encountering the HTTP. 

The good thing is that most of the websites have already shifted to HTTPS so the chances of encountering this issue are dim. 

Non-Web Documents

You can receive users from non-web sources like Word, Google Docs, or PDF documents for resources like;

  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • eBooks

These documents often contain links to websites. The same goes for users coming from links on mobile apps that refuse to transfer referral information. 

Dark Social

This is a broad category that includes sources of website traffic that go unaccounted for because the users arrived following links shared privately. 

Examples of social sharing include links shared via;

  • Instant messaging applications
  • WhatsApp
  • Email
  • Skype

The word dark in the term refers to the inability to track how the users arrive on a website via social sharing. 

Typically happens when people share a link to something they appreciate with friends, family, and/or colleagues and they in turn might share with theirs. 

Since the channels used for sharing the link are beyond the reach of marketing channels, this segment goes unaccounted for and is listed as direct traffic. 

Interested in learning more about the various features and capabilities of GA4? Register for our live training session on Google Analytics 4 below.

 

How to Fix Direct Traffic?

Not all direct traffic is bad, but you do not want sources that are otherwise unaccounted for to inflate the stats either. Let us help you bring direct traffic in GA4 under control. 

Review Your Google Analytics 4 Code

First things first, if you see issues with your direct traffic or users attributed to (not set), it is high time you revisit your GA4 setup. 

One of the reasons for abnormal direct traffic could be that some of your website’s pages are either missing the GA4 tracking code, or it is broken. 

Such issues could particularly arise at the time of the addition of new pages to the site or its relaunch. 

To fix the issue;

  • Run a quick audit of your website to identify if some pages are missing the tracking code
  • Either add the missing code manually or (preferably) apply automated tagging with Google Tag Manager (GTM)
  • Check if the tag installation went smoothly by going to Reports > Real-time > Overview. If it did install correctly you will notice a difference in your results.

Implement UTM Parameters

UTM tracking codes add up to your URL and track how users arrive on your page.

They collect information like the source and medium through which users visit a website or application, enabling credit allocation to channels, links, or campaigns driving traffic. 

Ensure proper UTM tagging so that the direct traffic is representative of your brand strength. 

Be careful of a few things when setting up your UTM tags;

  • It is better to set up UTM tags via the Google Tag Manager
  • Ensure the tagging is following Google’s definitions
  • Append UTM tags to all your marketing campaigns
    • Email
    • Social media
    • Paid advertising
    • Custom channels (e.g. e-books, and QR codes on printed brochures)
  • Do not tag internal links

Fix Redirects

Improperly implemented redirects can remove referrer data from the redirections. There are a few ways to fix the issues.

  • Avoid using problematic redirects like Meta refreshers and JavaScript redirects
  • Implement thorough 301 server-side redirect codes to ensure maximum information preservation
  • Perform periodic audits of the redirection configurations for timely identification of issues

Fix Vanity URL Redirects

Just as on other pages, remember to add a UTM tag to a vanity URL as well. Also, ensure that the page it is redirecting to has correctly configured and installed tags. 

Use HTTPS

Secure domains are the industry standard now. So, if your website is still operating with HTTP migrate to HTTPS. The move will offer several benefits including; 

  • Protect your website from cyber attacks
  • Build trust among users about their data protection
  • Ensure referrer information is passed from one secure domain to yours

Block Internal Traffic

It is a no-brainer but your teammates visit your website several times a day for work-related reasons. 

Unless you remove it, it will both inflate your web traffic than the actual one and increase direct traffic. 

Because, how do team members visit their organization’s website? By typing the URL or bookmarking the page. 

You can remove internal traffic by configuring your domain in the Configure Tag Settings. 

How to Analyze Direct Traffic?

Find Context for the Spikes

Looking at your results try to assess where the spike in direct traffic is coming from. Is it as a result of a marketing campaign? 

Often marketing campaigns can generate dark social traffic on your website. 

Correlating your site visitors with a season or marketing campaign can help you make sense of your data. You also use the insights to up your tagging game for better attribution. 

Build Custom Segments

One way to identify valuable direct users is to track their landing pages and identify their conversions. 

Once you have the information, use it to build custom segments to define the traffic by useful parameters like; 

  • Landing pages 
  • Geographic location
  • Demographics
  • Device
  • Buying behavior

Use Flow Reports to Understand Traffic

Flow reports are one of the templates found in Explore. Here one can find out about the user touch points, including their conversions and the monetary value generated by them. 

Track GTM Triggers

Find out how your direct users are engaging and interacting (user behavior) with your website by tracking GTM triggers. 

Create event view triggers to see what pages these users are viewing, for how long, and how they behave. 

Track Bounce Rate

Having some bounce rate is inevitable, in fact, a bounce rate of 26% - 40% is considered normal. 

But if your direct traffic is showing too great a bounce rate, chances are you are dealing with a spam bot and need some measures to avoid it. 

Conclusion

Direct traffic in Google Analytics 4 is primarily the traffic that cannot be accounted for with other channels. 

It comes from users accessing the website by directly typing the website URL, following a bookmark, a link shared via social media, or one embedded in PDF or Word documents.

Other causes included broken or improperly implemented UTM tags, incorrectly implemented redirects, and referrer data withheld due to a non-secure website.

Direct traffic is not inherently a negative metric. 

In fact, within a reasonable measure, direct traffic is indicative of a strong brand presence. 

You can fix it by reviewing your Google Analytics 4 tracking code, implementing automated Google tags via GTM, using proper tagging for redirected links, migrating to HTTPS, and blocking internal traffic. 

To get the most out of your direct traffic try to contextualize the increase in direct traffic. 

You could also build custom segments to get meaningful insights and track user flow reports to assess customer behavior and conversion of users from direct traffic. 

Creating and tracking custom GTM triggers can also help with the user behavior assessment.

 Finally, remember to closely look at the bounce rate to see if it is a spam bot and take action to get rid of it.