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March 1, 2023 (Updated: March 8, 2023)
Did you know studies from Search Engine Land and Groupon, though almost 10 years old now, show that some traffic your analytics programs record as direct traffic is actually organic traffic? What’s the difference between them and why does it matter? Today, we’re looking at organic traffic vs direct traffic and reviewing everything you need to know about your analytics data for website views:
Organic traffic comes to your website from a referral source that you earned naturally. That means you didn’t pay for an advertisement or a boost that directed the traffic to your website. Many marketers count only unpaid search engine traffic as organic traffic. We prefer to call that organic search traffic because it’s just one type of unpaid traffic you find in your analytics. You can also have organic email traffic, organic referral traffic, organic social traffic, and so on.
These subcategories still fall under unpaid organic traffic at their most basic. Sorting them further helps you understand the traffic sources in addition to the traffic cost.
Related: How To Get Free Organic Traffic to Your Website
Direct traffic is any traffic that comes straight to your site without referring from another ad, link, or channel. Most people think of direct traffic as any user typing your URL into the web browser and hitting “Enter.” That is one type of direct traffic. Other types include bookmarks in a browser, adding pages to a “read later” list on a device, or setting your website as a home page that comes up every time someone opens their browser.
For example, if you don’t block your employees’ IP addresses, you may see direct traffic from them navigating to your website from work computers if the company website is the default browser home page.
Besides organic and direct traffic, there are a few other types of web traffic your analytics tools might capture. They include:
Earning direct and organic traffic happens differently on your websites. Here are some ways you can grab each type:
Earning direct traffic on your site is simple: you get it when someone comes right to your site without a go-between. The most common way that happens is when someone types your website URL or a page URL into the address bar in their browser. For example, if you typed www.copypress.com/content-marketing-analysis/ into your browser right now, it would take you to our Content Analysis landing page and count as direct traffic.
If you bookmarked that page to your browser or added it to your reading list on a mobile device and visited it again later, that would also count as direct traffic to our website. Google gets direct traffic from most of us every day, especially Chrome users. Google sets the search engine home page as the default home page for the browser.
Customers or clients logging into a portal may also trigger direct traffic in your analytics. This might not be the direct traffic you’re looking for in your metrics and may require a filter to separate it from new and prospective lead direct traffic.
When earning organic traffic to your site, there’s always an intermediary between the visitor and your website. For the traffic to be organic, that intermediary has to be an unpaid source. Search engine rankings, unpaid backlinks, social media posts, links in your social media profiles, and email links can all lead to organic traffic on your site. A member of your audience clicks a link on that intermediary site or platform and it refers them to your website, counting as organic traffic.
The biggest differences between organic and direct traffic come down to user intent and brand awareness. If your audience and industry know your company well, you’ll likely see more direct traffic in your analytics. You may also see more direct traffic if your audience is further down the marketing funnel and ready to make a purchase. They know your brand exists and offers what they’re ready to buy. They visit your site directly instead of using an intermediary.
Earning more organic traffic tells you how you’re doing with SEO, engagement, and content campaigns. It also lets you see which channels and campaigns are most popular with your audience. For example, let’s say your audience members are at the top or middle of the marketing funnel. They know they want to buy new headphones, but they don’t know exactly what they want. These people head to social media to ask for recommendations from friends. They also search for things like “best headphones 2023” on Google to see what information comes up.
One of their friends recommends your brand by sharing a link on social media. They also find an organic backlink to one of your headphone models in a tech blog roundup through Google search. Either of these options brings organic traffic to your site from social media and referrals. The more you know about where your traffic comes from, the better you can align your marketing plan with company goals. You can learn which channels work or how to capitalize and convert on your direct traffic if you have more of that.
Neither direct traffic nor organic traffic is “better” for your website or brand. But your team might want to see an increase in one type over another, depending on your company goals. If you’re trying to build brand awareness or develop an audience of loyal followers, you want to focus on grabbing more organic traffic to your site. Organic traffic signals that people find mentions of your website across the internet. They’re using those links to visit your site and learn more about your company and what you offer.
If you’re more focused on generating or nurturing leads and making sales, look to increase your direct traffic. As we’ve said, people are more likely to come directly to your site at the bottom of the marketing funnel when they’re ready to make a purchase. That doesn’t mean organic traffic can’t lead to conversions and sales. But direct traffic typically signals a shorter customer journey from web visits to conversions.
Though paid marketing campaigns can’t bring you direct or organic traffic, they can affect how you earn those types of traffic. The process isn’t as counterintuitive as you might think. It relies on the “Marketing Rule of 7.” This principle states that it takes an average of seven exposures to your brand before an audience member makes a conversion or purchase. Just because one of your paid marketing ads doesn’t result in a click or a conversion, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting anything out of it.
Every time one of your audience members sees an ad for your brand on social media, in search results, or while browsing another site, that counts as another brand exposure. Repeated exposure increases brand awareness, which can lead to more direct traffic to your website.
More brand awareness also encourages people to click your web links in search results or links on other content across the internet. The more they see your brand name, the more comfortable they become with it. That leads to trust in your brand and willingness to click on links or content that go to your website.
Most analytics tools allow you to track both organic and direct traffic on the same services, along with other types of traffic you could get to your website. With any service you use, it’s important to look at how the program tracks traffic, where the reports live, and how you can filter or analyze traffic data within the program. Google Analytics is one of the most preferred traffic tracking tools because it’s free and simple to use.
Whenever you choose a web analytics tool, be sure to look at the features it offers and the instructions to set it up to work properly. Try watching tutorial videos or reading through start-up guides for a program before choosing the one that’s right for your brand. These intro documents and content can help you get familiar with the program and see if it fits your traffic tracking needs before you jump into using it.
Related: Google Analytics: Everything You Need To Know
If you’re worried about collecting organic or direct traffic visits from users in Incognito Mode or using services like DuckDuckGo, don’t be. Private browsing and “private” search engines get their names because they don’t log the website you visit. They also prevent the addition or modification of tracking cookies on your browser or device. That means sites can’t track users forever, but they can still track them within individual sessions.
Someone that uses a private or incognito browsing window and types your URL into the address bar still counts as a direct traffic visitor in your metrics. Any clicks your website gets from a service like DuckDuckGo still counts as organic traffic.
Related: DuckDuckGo Hit 100 Billion Searches: Should You Care?
Sometimes, Google Analytics or other programs can’t tell or don’t know where your web referral traffic comes from. Certain errors make it look like your visitors don’t have a referral, so the programs categorize that traffic as direct traffic. Here are a few reasons analytics tools might mislabel your traffic:
Redirects are a huge culprit for mislabeled direct traffic. A redirect happens when someone tries to access one page on your website but gets sent to a different page. You use redirects when you move content or delete old content to send visitors to a related, equally relevant page on your site.
It’s important that you use redirect best practices when adding them to your site. If you don’t, you could have a variety of problems, one of which is mislabeled website traffic in your analytics programs. Bad redirects can strip out UTM parameters for campaigns, which makes traffic look direct instead of coming from an organic or paid referral. Complex redirects may also erase tracking data, making referrals look direct when they’re not.
If you’re not using your tracking codes the right way, especially for Google Analytics, it can cause issues with how the program recognizes and sorts visitors and sessions. For example, if you create a new landing page and forgot to add the tracking code, Google Analytics would count anyone who clicks through to your primary site from the landing page as a new user. This makes the click look like a self-referral or direct traffic. It’s not, though, because someone hit your landing page, likely through an organic referral, first.
Broken tracking codes can cause the same issues. Your code may break if it’s mistyped or you have multiple properties with different codes and you added the wrong one to a page.
Using an HTTP instead of an HTTPS scheme in your URL could cause mislabeled direct traffic to your site. Organizations that have HTTP sites won’t see tracking on visitors coming from an HTTPS site. This is part of the security protocol. To fix the issue, get a third-party SSL certificate and update your site to be secure. Then you’ll be able to see referral information from visitors coming from other secure websites, like those where you might have guest posts or other organic backlinks.
The traffic sources themselves sometimes make it more difficult for analytics programs to label traffic. Some mobile apps, email clients, and desktop programs don’t pass referring information when people use them to visit your site. Although these are often organic referrals, without that tracking information, your analytics programs will never know.
To try to identify this type of mislabeled traffic, look for changes in traffic volume after you complete certain actions. Did you just add a new CTA on your app? Have you sent out a big email campaign recently? If you find you’re seeing big spikes in direct traffic after these actions, mislabeled traffic within your analytics program may have caused it.
Privacy settings from different apps and accounts may affect how your analytics programs track traffic. Most sites and programs allow a variety of login options, such as creating an account with your email address or signing in with another service’s login, like Facebook or Google. While these options provide convenience for users, they can also confuse your analytics programs.
When people log into accounts through a service like Google, they have more control over their privacy settings in the Google account. If people turn off certain types of data sharing, this could prevent you from tracking their referrals or sources. Google also has encrypted keyword data settings in place for its accounts, which could prevent accurate tracking for your brand.
You might wonder why it matters if your analytics programs mislabel your traffic sources. Traffic is traffic after all, right? In the big picture, sure, traffic is traffic and all that matters is if you’re getting it. But marketers care about more than just the big picture. If you know where most of your traffic comes from, you learn more about your brand recognition, audience behavior, and successful marketing channels.
For example, if 75% of your web traffic is direct traffic, that likely means a high level of recognition for your brand. People know your company so well they head straight to the address bar to visit your site versus doing a Google search. But if 25% or 50% of that direct traffic isn’t actually direct traffic, that changes the game. It also changes your perception of your brand recognition, doesn’t it?
Knowing your traffic sources also helps you take advantage of your best marketing opportunities. If you get a lot of web traffic from your social media channels, that means most of your audience spends time there. It could also mean you ran a successful paid social campaign. If you’re not getting as much traffic from your email newsletter, it might be time to revamp your template and strategy. Traffic sorting mistakes in your analytics programs skew all this data and make your next best marketing moves unclear.
Organic traffic and direct traffic aren’t opposites. You can earn both types of traffic to your website simultaneously. For any brand, you often want to see a balance between direct and organic traffic, as well as paid traffic if you use paid marketing. One type of traffic isn’t better than another. As we said earlier, traffic is traffic. The more people who visit your website increase your chances of making conversions and sales.
If you find you have an imbalance of traffic sources, it could be time to reevaluate your content marketing strategy and put more attention on the low areas. Bringing your traffic sources in balance means you have enough brand recognition and awareness, you’re using your free traffic sources to your advantage, and your paid marketing is worth the money.