Referrer in Traffic Source Report - Can you Trust it?

Referrer in traffic source report - can you trust it?

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Besides counting visits to your website, one of the main features of web analytics is collecting traffic sources. After all, everyone wants more traffic to their website and knowing where people are coming from is key to understand what drives people's decision to go to your website. Google Analytics copes with this task beautifully - not just collecting traffic sources, but also grouping them into categories and even allowing you to create your own grouping logic for acquisition traffic. To be honest, any modern web analytics solution, such as IBM Digital Analytics (IBM DA) and Adobe Analytics (Adobe Marketing Cloud), does this as well.

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Are traffic sources accurate?

Want to know something interesting? The numbers in the Direct and referral rows are wrong!

Google Analytics does its best to show the most accurate and meaningful numbers. What we mean by meaningful is the fact that Google Analytics undercounts Direct traffic sources. To understand why this is happening, we need to understand how Google Analytics "recognises" traffic sources.

When you visit a website, your browser will report the previous page as HTTP Referer field (which is a part of how the internet works). Based on the previous URL, Google Analytics (or any other analytics tool) will define the Traffic Source for the current session.

For example, if referrer contains substring google.com, then the session has come from Organic Search with Google as a source. If the Adwords marker is present, then it is AdWords traffic. If UTM variables are found in the URL, then the session must be attributed to a specified campaign. And if referrer is empty - then it is a Direct traffic source.

In the real world, it is a little bit more complicated than that and as I said earlier you can re-define rules as you see fit. The main idea stays the same: to attribute a session to a correct traffic source we need the referrer field to be present and the session is only attributed to the Direct traffic source if Google Analytics is unable to attribute it to any other source. Basically, if referrer is unknown, the session will be attributed to Direct traffic source when in reality it could, for example, be Facebook. Some HTTPS security settings may prevent showing the HTTP Referer field.

The above already brings a bit of inaccuracy to the Acquisition report - but what can we do? The world we live in is not perfect. I trust Google Analytics to do its best to provide us with the most accurate numbers. But what about meaningful ones?

I have shown why Google Analytics will over-count Direct traffic. Now I am going to show why and how it will undercount it.

Does Google Analytics undercount direct traffic?

Let's say, a website visitor finds your website via AdWords, then next day visits your website directly by typing it's URL and completes a purchase. Where do we attribute this conversion: to Adwords or Direct ?

Being accurate - obviously to the Direct Traffic Source.
Being meaningful - to AdWords of course! Without being introduced to your brand on day one via Adwords, there is no way a client will go directly to your website on day two and convert.

The sole reason you have analytics on your website is to be able to improve your sales based on data. If your analytics isaccurate instead of meaningful you would see a bunch of sales attributed to Direct traffic source. Can you improve on this result? Can you make more people to come to your website using the Direct channel? Not really. On the other hand, if your analytics is meaningful - that's because you can influence AdWords, and consequently make your data-driven decision :) .

Yes, Google Analytics is meaningful - it will attribute both sessions in the scenario above to AdWords. Same goes with other Traffic Sources such as Referrer, Organic Search, etc. Furthermore, in all reports within the Google Analytics Portal the Last Non-Direct Click attribution model is used, thereby hiding the true Direct traffic sources from you even further.

Let's leave the Attribution Problem for now because we have covered it in other posts. Google Analytics hides from us the channel we are not able to influence directly in our marketing campaigns and this works really well for most businesses.
But what if you NEED TO KNOW if the user has really typed in the website URL or used a bookmark?

How do we know if a user has really come from direct traffic?

If you are a lucky user of Analytics 360 (formerly Google Analytics Premium), in its awesome BigQuery export you'll find a TrueDirect field telling you exactly what you need to know. Well, lucky you!

For those who haven't purchased an Analytics 360 license yet, it is still possible to answer your need, but it requires some advanced techniques. Guess what? I like advanced techniques! Depending on the situation, I would recommend taking one of the following approaches or even a combination of them:

  • Add UTM variables to the link you are using with your bookmark me script. It won't catch ALL of the bookmarked traffic, but will correctly attribute some of it
  • Make HTTPS a default for your website
  • Avoid redirects on landing pages
  • Save the HTTP Referer field as a Custom Dimension. It is very easy to do with Google Tag Manager (GTM)
  • Isolate landing pages for sessions which are attributed as Direct and TrueDirect (from BigQuery for analytics 360 customers) and try to understand what is preventing Google Analytics from attributing traffic correctly
  • Your idea?

Please feel free to reach out to me or the Internetrix Online Performance Team if you require any assistance with setting up tagging mentioned above or you simply require help understanding your Acquisition reports. Happy reporting colleagues!

Thank you for browsing this post, stay tuned for more from Internetrix. Pick up the phone, Live Chat, or email us if you would like us to share our skills and knowledge to achieve your goals with Analytics 360 (Google Analytics Premium); Analytics training; or your own tailored tagging solution package. Internetrix combines digital consulting with winning website design, smart website development and strong digital analytics and digital marketing skills to drive revenue or cut costs for our clients. We deliver web-based consulting, development and performance projects to customers across the Asia Pacific ranging from small business sole traders to ASX listed businesses and all levels of Australian government.

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