Original question from Quora:
“How do I figure out where direct traffic in Google Analytics found my website in the first place? No one just enters a URL of a website first time visiting it; they need to know about the website through ads, organic search, referrals etc.“
The short answer is: you can’t. The fact that the traffic is being classified under “Direct” by definition means that there is no referring information for Google Analytics to use to determine where the user came from.
You’re right that it seems strange and unlikely that someone’s first visit to a website would start by them typing in the URL, so here are a couple of possible explanations for that:
- It’s not actually the user’s first visit. These days browsers are deleting cookies more aggressively and more users are adopting ad/tracking blockers. GA’s new / return visitor dimension depends on the GA cookie being present. If the GA cookie gets deleted for whatever reason, when that user comes back (even if they have been to your site dozens of times) they will look like a new visitor in the GA data.
- Referral data or UTM parameters are getting stripped. It’s not unheard of for those details to get lost if there are a lot of redirects in between the origin site and the destination site. There are also some sites that are configured to strip any non-whitelisted URL parameters before the page (and therefore the GA tracking code) loads.
- Vanity URLs. If you’re doing offline marketing where you’re using vanity URLs like http://website.com/freegift and you don’t do anything special to flag those referrals in GA, they’ll come through as direct.
My heart always sinks when I’m digging into some anomaly and find that it’s related to direct traffic because that’s virtually a dead end for my investigation. You can try breaking down direct by landing page to get some sense of which page the user started on. If it’s a page deeper in the site, it might give you a hint to how/why they got there. But odds are it’s the homepage, and you’ll be stuck in another analytical dead end.
I wish I had a different and more helpful answer for you, but this is one of the painful and annoying realities of digital analytics!