I saw this great article on Moz about Direct traffic by Tom Bennett the other day and it prompted me to write this post, which includes a checklist you can use to ensure that you’re tracking all of your organic search traffic (and SEO work!) in Google Analytics.
I also wanted to make sure that my clients and readers were aware of how Google Analytics’s recent changes will cause items which you might consider organic traffic to be delivered as referral sources instead.
Here’s how your organic traffic can be mislabeled (or missing) in Google Analytics:
Missing GA tracking code
If you launch a page and somehow forget to put GA tracking code on it, Google Analytics not only won’t be able to track interactions on that page but also won’t be able to track where the traffic came from.
To check to see if this is an issue for your site, check to see if you see your own website showing up as a referral source in your referral reporting, and you can also scan the GA tags on your site using Tag Inspector.
Conflicting GA code
Google Analytics can’t support two or more Google Analytics tracking codes on the page (unless they are being loaded from within Google Tag Manager) and if there are two or more codes on the page, it often results in a misfiring of the tags and a loss of data. This also occurs if there are 2 Google Tag Manager containers on the page.
You can check this by using the Google Tag Assistant plugin for Chrome.
Clicks from Google News
You might not be aware, but when someone clicks on your article in Google news, instead of showing up as an organic source, they will show up as news.url. google.com.
Conversely, if your article shows up in the Top Stories carousel like this:
Then you’ll see that traffic in your organic reports in Google Analytics.
Clicks from Knowledge Graph Boxes
Most people don’t know, but when a user clicks on a link that shows up in those boxes, those visits show up as referrals from google.com in your referral reporting, not an organic traffic click.
Also, keep in mind that each time a user finds what they were looking for directly in the Knowledge Graph, it negates the need for them to visit the website, and that results in one less visit coming to the website from the branded keyword search.
Clicks from your Google My Business listing
Same as above, these clicks will show up as referrals from google.com unless you’ve used UTM tagging to adjust those links before you add your website link to your Google My Business listing. Same with Google Posts that you can post from your Google My Business listing.
Did you move to HTTPs without executing 301 redirects?
You can check this by running a crawl with your favorite crawl tool to see how many valid HTTP pages are surfaced.
Other redirect issues
Curious as to what type of redirect you are using? You can surface this data by using a crawl tool like ScreamingFrog, Sitebulb, or Deepcrawl, or you can check this issue on a page by page basis by using the Chrome Redirect path plugin.
Links from Non-HTML documents
Links in Microsoft Word documents, slide decks or PDFs do not pass referrer information. you should be tagging the embedded hyperlinks with UTM campaign parameters.
Did you move to AMP?
Without proper configuration, you’re going to see those visits from some version of cdn.ampproject.org vs. Google organic. If you create a channel grouping report – pulling in all of the AMP clicked pages you can get a more complete set of metrics around how AMP is performing against your other marketing channels.
Incorrect UTM tagging
If you mess up using UTM tagging, Google Analytics will get confused and put that traffic into the direct reporting instead. While I encourage my clients to use a spreadsheet to track their UTM tagging usage and the very least you should use this online UTM tagging creator and keep track (in an internal document) of how you label your various parameters (including capitalization). That should cut down on the errors. And be careful when labeling “social media” as Google only takes particular labels for the medium parameter.
And please don’t use UTM tagging on your landing pages. That will destroy your data integrity and make digital marketers like me cry.
A large number of your users will share your content via private channels – their own email, a messaging app (like Facebook Messenger) and all of those platforms strip our your ability to track where your users have come from.
Or maybe your user opened up your URL from an email or social media app (like Facebook, Pocket, or the Google News app). When that happens, it’s basically as if they had simply copied and pasted that URL into their browser (unless you already use UTM campaign tagging for your social media posts, then Google will read those parameters you provided and assign the referrer properly).
Here’s an infographic about the impact of dark social:
Groupon did a study in 2014 that showed that 60% of their Direct traffic was actually SEO traffic.
OK, but how do you fix all of these SEO traffic tracking issues?
- Check to make sure you have Google Analytics tracking on all of your pages.
- If you notice that you have many of these issues, you might need a full Google Analytics audit (and I can help you with that).
- Make sure you are using 301 redirects only (unless there’s a great reason to use a 302, like a user login page).
- Use UTM tagging properly and regularly on any link you place OFF your website, and on your non-HTML documents like Word docs or .pdfs.
Google Discover as a source of “direct” traffic, along with all other voice search sources.
Clicks from most mobile search widgets and apps (which include those with voice search) are recorded in Google Analytics as visits without any attribution are being dumped into the “direct” channel (vs. “organic). Visits from Apple iOS Safari (after version 6) also show up as direct vs organic. I wrote about this web analytics issue earlier this year.
All visits from Google voice search sources (Assistant, Home, and Google Siri) and voice searches from Bing-powered devices like Alexa and Cortana are also recorded as “direct”.
What have you seen in your Google Analytics accounts? Do you think you’re effectively tracking all of your organic traffic?