Direct traffic means that someone was familiar enough with your brand to go directly to to your site. That’s an accomplishment. The problem is, a lot of the traffic that being tracked at ‘direct’ may be referral traffic that wasn’t tracked.
The most common cause for dropped referrers is when a link goes from an https page to your http page. This isn’t a bug, in fact it’s in the W3C spec. W3C believes encrypted headers should stay encrypted, and passing them to an unencrypted page could cause a security leak (W3C Spec). So what’s a marketer to do? It’s simple, serve everything over https. It can be a little more overhead to set up but it means your tracking will work better and your visitors may even feel more secure being on a page with a little green lock.
So https is part of the problem, but it’s not the whole story. Browsers, security software, and even links themselves can also block the referrer field from being sent. Some people really don’t like the fact that the HTTP spec sends referrers. Here’s a quote from a Microsoft forum:
What is wrong with Microsoft Internet Explorer developers since they do not understand that this is a security issue that needs to be addressed right god damn now?! I do not want referrer information leaked to god knows who when I am surfing the web in the privacy of my own home! Microsoft FIX THIS RIGHT NOW !!!!!!!!!!
That’s an extreme case but the fact is, some people don’t want you to see where they came from. That pressure has led to the development of extensions for every browser that block referrers, default settings in Norton and ZoneAlarm to block referrer and even an HTML5 spec for dropping rel=”noreferrer” directly into the link.
Emailed links, SMS links, App links, PDF links, etc.
Browsers are not the only things that can contain links. Traffic can come from outside the web, and generally that traffic will come through without referrer and get swept right into ‘direct’. There’s not much we can do about this, since the referrer field was never meant to track links outside the web.
Redirects and link shortners
Solution: UTM Everything
UTM tags are really the only reliable way to track your traffic. As a rule, you should UTM tag every link you have the power to tag. This includes ads, links from social media, links from your email campaigns, links in your PDF e-books, links you text to your mother. Everything. All the links. Tag them all. The reason for this is that you control your UTM tags. There’s no settings, devices, or HTML specs that can disable them.