How to Understand the Difference Between Direct and Organic Traffic

Believe it or not, many marketing managers are convinced that organic and direct traffic are one and the same, and don’t take the time to track and report on them independently. 

This can be a bit understandable, because it isn’t exactly clear at first glance, and every other traffic source is unmistakable. However, not discerning the two would be doing your digital marketing efforts a huge disservice. 

Naturally, every internet marketer wants to attract and grow their website’s audience. So, how do you know what to measure to determine success or identify which improvements are needed? When you’re facing those pesky “direct” and “organic” numbers, which you know must be good, but you don’t know why or what makes them different, you can’t make informed strategic content decisions.

Because ranking can change frequently, it makes it difficult for it to be a viable method of measuring success. Keeping an eye on the source of your traffic will tell you which marketing strategies and resources are paying off.

What Are the Sources of Traffic?

Before we break down the differences between direct and organic traffic, let’s take a little look-see at all of the sources you should be analyzing. If you’re wondering where you can find the source of all your website traffic, Google Analytics is (or at least should be) your golden goose.

Platforms such as Google Analytics log and categorize referring websites. If you’re doing your digital marketer’s due diligence, then several of these referring sites should have parameters tacked onto the end of the URL for tracking purposes (such as source, medium, term, and campaign). These metrics allow you to narrow down precisely where your website visitors came from. More on that in a bit.

So, what are traffic sources can you analyze? In Google Analytics, check out Acquisition > Overview for a top-level breakdown of where your traffic is coming from.

While this article’s focus is direct and organic, there are other traffic sources to be considered when looking at data and parsing out what kind/s are most beneficial to you and your website. 

Direct is made up of visits coming from people who enter your website into the browser. It can also be from URL history, bookmarks, or favorites. Direct traffic is defined as visits with no referring websites.

Organic consists of visits coming from search engines such as Google or Bing, “non-paid visits.” Organic traffic directly relates to your SEO efforts. Paid advertising is excluded from organic traffic even though that traffic is coming from the search engines. 

Social can come from any major social media platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram.

Referral is traffic that occurs when a user finds you through a site other than a major search engine.

Email comes froman email marketing campaign that has been tagged.

Paid search is traffic from search engines as a result of advertising via Google AdWords or another paid search platform.

Other is exactly that: traffic that doesn’t fit in of the above categories.

So, What’s the Difference Between Direct and Organic Traffic?

Now that we know the various sources of traffic, let’s dissect the two that we all love to love but also kind of hate: direct and organic.

As mentioned above, direct traffic does not have a referring website. Someone is visiting your website directly.

This source is a clear indicator that you are on someone’s mind. After all, you didn’t have to do anything for them to visit your site. However, direct traffic can mean a lot of things; someone may have manually entered your URL, which is great.

Someone may have bookmarked your site – also great. Someone could have reached you through an untagged link in an email – not bad, but hard to track. 

Your tracking codes may not be firing. Your site was reached through a redirect. An employee visited your site. A regular customer returned to your website. There are SO many explanations. The problem with direct is that it is difficult to analyze and report on, so it’s important that you know what matters most to your business from an analysis perspective.

Here’s an example of direct traffic: many businesses will default their employee browser homepage to the company website. Employees opening the company browser are counted as visitors and are considered direct traffic. In order to avoid false positives, filter out internal addresses for accurate feedback.

Another case of direct traffic may be due to security (HTTPS versus HTTP). If a user lands on an unsecure website from a secure website, Google will not log the referring data. It has become unattributable. If your website is not secure, you can easily fix the problem by integrating an SSL certificate.

On the contrary, organic traffic is tracked by another source, and is every digital marketer’s goal. If your marketing strategy relies on user intent, targeted keyword research, and ranking, then organic traffic is important to you. Measuring the data from organic traffic will not only tell you if your campaign is successful but can provide valuable information about your visitors. 

Your visitor demographics, the language they use, and the devices they prefer all come in handy when optimizing your site for data. The higher your website is ranked, the more organic traffic will find its way to your site.

How Can You Create Accurate Reports?

As mentioned, many people think direct and organic traffic are the same thing, but the differences are in the tracking. Tracking is essential if you, as a digital marketer, want to be able to provide your company with reliable data as it relates to where your website visitors are coming from. 

Trust us, there is nothing worse than a HUGE chunk of traffic that goes unaccounted for, especially when that traffic could prove highly beneficial to your bottom line.

Using Google Analytics’ Campaign URL Builder allows you to enter your URL, and input a Campaign Source, Medium, Name, Term, and Content. This way, when your website is promoted, it’s easy to identify just where people are coming from, which is key. 

Understanding how your visitors consume your site and why is the best way to come to terms with what your traffic is (or isn’t) doing for your business.

There is no magic formula to understanding all the semantics, algorithms or classifications. Doing your due diligence as a webmaster and analyzing your traffic data regularly will allow you to keep pace with your audience and become more familiar with their intentions and how they use your site.

As you learn about your visitors and what works for them, you can create optimized campaigns to generate more sales and conversions.

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