The Difference Between Organic Traffic and Direct Traffic Website Sources
November 30, 2022
By Catey Miller
For a long time, digital marketers summed up the properties of direct and organic traffic pretty simply. To most, organic traffic consists of visits from search engines, while direct traffic is made up of visits from people entering your company URL into their browser. This explanation, however, is an oversimplification and leaves most digital marketers short-handed when it comes to completely understanding and gaining insights from web traffic, especially organic and direct sources.
What are Traffic Sources?
Beyond organic and direct traffic, you must understand the differences among all of your traffic sources and how traffic is classified. Most web analytics platforms, like Google Analytics, use an algorithm and flowchart based on the referring website or URL parameters that determine the source of traffic. Here is a breakdown of all sources:
Other: If traffic does not fit into another source or has been tagged as “Other” via a URL parameter, it will be bucketed into “Other” traffic
- Organic traffic: Traffic from search engine results that is earned, not paid for
- Direct traffic: Any traffic where the referrer or source is unknown
- Email traffic: Traffic from email marketing that has been properly tagged with an email parameter
- Paid search traffic: Traffic from search engine results that is the result of paid advertising via Google Ads or another paid search platform
- Referral traffic: Traffic that occurs when a user finds you through a site other than a major search engine
- Social traffic: Traffic from a social network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram
Now that we have a general basis for all web traffic sources, let’s dig into the specifics of two very important sources: organic and direct traffic.
What is Organic Traffic?
Organic traffic is defined as visitors coming from a search engine, such as Google or Bing, and is the primary channel that inbound marketing strives to increase.
This does not include paid search ads, but that doesn’t mean organic traffic isn’t impacted by paid search or display advertising, either positively or negatively. People generally trust search engines, and sayings such as “just Google it” are evidence that online searches are part of our everyday lives. Thus, paid search, display, or even offline campaigns can drive searches, which may increase organic traffic while those campaigns are running.
To summarize all this information, even organic traffic, like direct traffic, has some gray areas. For the most part, though, organic traffic is driven by SEO. The better you rank for competitive keywords, the result will be more organic traffic. Websites that consistently create content optimized for search will see a steady increase in organic search traffic and improved positioning in search results. As a marketer, it is important to look at your keywords and high-ranking pages to identify new SEO opportunities each month.
What is Direct Traffic?
Direct traffic categorizes visits that do not come from a referring URL. When a visitor follows a link from one website to another, the site of origin is considered the referrer. These sites can be search engines, social media, blogs, or other websites that have links to other websites.
Traditionally, we’ve attributed this traffic to visitors manually entering the URL of the website or clicking on a bookmarked link. Today, however, the story behind direct traffic is a bit more complex, and the number of visits from direct traffic seems to be growing for many websites, especially sites with growing organic traffic.
To fully test and understand direct traffic, in 2014, Groupon ran a test in which it de-indexed its site for six hours. Groupon concluded that 60 percent of direct traffic was actually organic because de-indexing its site and halting organic traffic also dropped its direct traffic.
Why are more sites seeing direct traffic growth, and what should you do about it?
Let’s dig into the common causes of direct traffic to find the answer:
- Internal employees: Your employees commonly visit your site and do not have their IP filtered from web analytics. As a rule of thumb, you should filter out all company IPs from web analytics.
- Customers: Do your customers log into a customer portal on your site? This is often a source of direct traffic. In this case, you do not want to completely filter out the traffic but instead set up different views within Google Analytics to view web analytics without this traffic.
- Actual direct traffic: These people enter your URL into their browser or find you via a bookmark. There’s nothing you can do to dig deeper into this—just embrace the fact that users actually know your brand.
- Emails from particular email clients: It’s quite common for email clicks from Outlook or Thunderbird to not pass on referring information. You can typically identify whether an email caused a spike in direct traffic by analyzing traffic around the time a particular email was sent.
- Mobile traffic: In the Groupon experiment mentioned above, Groupon found that both the browser and the device matter for the ability of web analytics to track organic traffic. Whereas desktops using common browsers saw a smaller impact from the test (10-20 percent), mobile devices saw a 50 percent drop in direct traffic when the site was de-indexed. In short, as mobile users grow, we are likely to see direct traffic rise even more from organic search traffic.
- Clicks on mobile apps or desktop software: Programs such as news apps often do not pass on referring information and, thus, result in direct traffic. The best way to capture and analyze this further is to understand where your site links, including apps, might be commonly used or placed digitally.
- Secure (HTTPS) to non-secure sites (HTTP): Since Google began emphasizing the importance of having a secure site, more websites are securely hosted, as indicated by the “https” in their URLs. Per the security protocol, however, traffic going from a secure site to a non-secure site will not pass referral information. You can address this issue by updating your site to be secure through a third-party SSL certificate.
Traffic data is a great way to take the temperature of your website and marketing initiatives. When you are writing and promoting blog content on a regular basis, you can use traffic data to track results and correlate these efforts to actual ROI. Be sure to look at website traffic numbers over long-term intervals to see trends and report on improvement over time.This blog was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated since.
About the author
Catey Miller is a Senior Copyeditor based in Wilmington, NC. She has a BFA and an MFA in creative writing and writes YA fiction when she's not copy editing. She worked as a freelance editor for SmartBug Media starting in Nov. 2017 and was promoted to senior editor in March 2019, and she is happy to bring her editorial expertise to the world of Intelligent Inbound marketing. Read more articles by Catey Miller.