In the big picture, increasing privacy protections for internet users is a good thing. There are many ways in which the privacy of online users can be exploited, so having protections in place that make such issues less likely can benefit us all.
With that said, there are parts of these privacy efforts that have made life harder for marketers because we need to report on performance. If you do any work in the digital marketing space, you already know that the quality of the information you can collect has significantly declined over recent years. Rather than just throwing our hands up at this issue, we can step back and think of strategies that can be used to make good marketing decisions while understanding the value of privacy for our customers and website visitors. Let’s take a closer look at this topic in the article below.
Understanding Traffic Sources
When you look at an analytics report – most websites use Google Analytics – one of the pieces of information you will find is the source of your traffic. In other words, where did a user come from when they landed on your site? Since the internet is a massive structure of links that point from pages on one site to pages on other sites, it can be greatly informative to know where your traffic is coming from month after month.
As an example, let’s say you look at your analytics and find that a visit to your site was referred by twitter.com. That means the person who landed on your site and registered that hit came from Twitter – they were on Twitter and clicked on a link that led them to your page. That link could have been one that you posted, or it might have been posted by a random user who wanted to share your page with others. Whatever the case, you’ll see twitter.com as the referring domain, and you’ll at least have a decent idea of what is going on.
What is Direct Traffic?
Along with a list of referring domains for your traffic, you’ll also see that some percentage of your traffic is not being attributed to a referrer. Instead, it is just listed as “direct”, meaning the user (in theory) came straight to your site without making any other stops. The purest example of truly direct traffic is when someone opens their web browser and types in the domain for your site. In that case, the traffic is direct, as no other site pointed the user in your direction.
As you might imagine, truly direct traffic is relatively uncommon. Most people follow links to get where they are going on the web, even if those links are in the form of search results. Unless it’s someone who does business with your brand regularly and already knows the domain name, they are likely going to come to you through other means.
So, if people aren’t really typing in your domain address very often, where are all of these direct traffic visits coming from? The reality of the situation is the direct traffic “bucket” is where Google will put all of the visits that it can’t fit into any other category. If analytics doesn’t know where the visitor came from, counting that visit as direct will be the default solution. So, when you see how many direct visits you get each month, don’t assume that all of those people are just coming to the web to find you specifically – because that’s probably not the case.
The Impact of Privacy
As more and more privacy rules are enacted on the web, it gets harder and harder for analytics programs to track where traffic comes from. In order to know what referring source is to credit for a visit to your site, the analytics program needs to track the movement of that visitor from one site to the next. Without that ability, the software is going to have to dump more visits into the direct category.
This is why most sites have seen a bump in direct traffic over recent years. It’s not a change in user behavior so much as it is a change in the privacy laws and the way they are implemented. Simply put, those laws don’t allow you to have as much insight into the performance of your site as you had previously.
So, should we just give up on figuring out where our traffic is coming from when running a website? Certainly not – we might not have access to the detailed information that was available in the past, but we can still work hard to get the best available data on which to make decisions. With the rest of this article, we’ll talk about how you can approach this issue in a strategic manner.
Start with These Quick Fixes
The good news on this topic is that there are a few things you can do to quickly get your direct traffic hits to decline in favor of hits that have an accurate referrer recorded. You are never going to be able to determine exactly where 100% of your traffic is coming from, but getting closer through the steps below will help improve the quality of your data.
- Check on your cookie system. Many sites now have some sort of cookie consent application running on their site when a new visitor lands on the site for the first time. We are all familiar with these consent forms, so they have become part of the background of the online landscape today. It’s possible that the cookie consent form is actually getting in the way of proper tracking from various traffic sources. If you use UTMs to track where visitors are coming from – more on that later – asking the user to go through the cooking process may strip away the UTM from the URL and you’ll be left with a direct traffic hit. If this is happening, you might need to look “under the hood” and work with your developer or IT team to figure out a suitable solution.
- Improper use of UTMs. UTMs are a great way to get a better handle on how traffic is flowing to your site. However, it’s possible to format them incorrectly, and as a result, the tracking won’t work out in the end. Go through the formatting of all UTMs to make sure they are correct, and you can start to improve the quality of your data collection.
- Switch to HTTPS. This is a point that you should be working on anyway, so this might be just the push you need to finally take care of this key point. If your site is currently running on HTTP, you might have a redirect layer in between your pages when a new user comes to the site. During that redirect, any referral information may be lost, and you’ll wind up not knowing anything about where the visitor came from. Fortunately, it’s relatively quick and easy to make the change to HTTPS, and it can benefit your site in a number of other ways. So, put this high on your priority list and take care of it right away.
- Add Google Analytics across the site. You need to have Google Analytics running on each page of your site if you are going to collect information for every user that lands on your pages. Usually, this will happen automatically by adding the tracking code to a header section that is present on every page – but don’t assume that everything is in place as it should be. Instead, take the time to review your pages to make sure the GA code is there, especially if your data looks questionable and you suspect something may be wrong.
You should also be aware that you are getting at least some traffic to your site from bots. There is bot traffic all over the web for various reasons, and most of these visits are going to be recorded as direct traffic. So, when you see a temporary bump in direct traffic, it might just be that your site has had a wave of bot traffic in recent days.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about this bot traffic and the direct hits it will record to your site. Mostly, this is just something to be aware of, and to factor into your evaluations of your overall traffic patterns. If you do plenty of other work in an effort to cut down on how many visits are recorded as “direct”, you can assume that at least a decent percentage of what is left in that bucket is bot traffic and doesn’t need to be considered in any meaningful way.
Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize
It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of tracking your site traffic, and you might even find yourself frustrated with the process as you can’t get the information you would like to have. Specifically, if you have been in this business for a while, you might find yourself longing for the “good old days” when you had tons of detailed, accurate information at your fingertips.
Of course, dwelling on this privacy and tracking issue is a useless activity. You aren’t going to be able to change the reality of the situation, beyond taking the steps we highlighted above to get the best information that is available under the current rules. So, what should you do? Move forward with your plans for your site and make it the best online asset it can be.
If you are willing to work hard and continually improve every aspect of the site, you should be able to grow it regardless of what kind of data comes through your analytics account. Even with a lot of users being counted as direct traffic, you’ll still get enough data to have a rough picture of where your visitors are coming from. That will help you steer the ship in the right direction, and you can keep working on refinements over the coming months and years to turn your website into the powerful machine that you’d like it to be.
Don’t let limited information stop you from making the decisions needed to drive your business forward. Yes, privacy rules present some challenges, but marketing is all about overcoming challenges to find and connect with your audience. We hope the tips offered in this article are helpful as you work toward reaching your goals online. Thank you for reading!
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