Why Direct Traffic Should Be Measured In Relation to All Other Marketing Channels

No one wakes up in the morning and magically knows about a new business with a perfect solution to their problem. Customers must go out and do research on their problem and uncover potential solutions. Often a customer exists within a certain vertical, where they’ll be exposed to advertising that sometimes alerts them to a useful new product/service.

This all sounds very intuitive and elementary, but marketers often treat Direct Traffic as its own “Channel”. This is despite the fact that nobody magically knows about their brand – they were exposed to other marketing channels first.

In this post, we’ll specifically explore how PPC (Paid Media) campaigns and SEO campaigns can positively influence direct traffic.

How PPC Campaigns Positively Impact Direct Traffic & Direct Traffic Conversions Image

How PPC Campaigns Positively Impact Direct Traffic & Direct Traffic Conversions

One of the most immediate impacts of paid media campaigns is an uplift in direct traffic to your brand’s site. This makes sense intuitively. As people see advertisements of your brand repeatedly across the web, they might go directly to your website to learn more about your products / solutions.

This can happen in several ways. First, the user might simply enter your brand’s domain into their browser and access it directly. Second, and more commonly, the user may click on a digital ad of your brand and that session is counted as a Direct visit because your analytics platform could not detect that the user came from an ad. There are a variety of reasons why analytics could not detect the user’s original traffic source, but we’ll leave it aside for this article.

So how do you know for sure that paid advertising had a positive influence on your site’s direct traffic? Google Analytics can often give you the answers to this question. Let’s look at a few examples…

A client of ours within the B2B software space utilizes a variety of marketing channels. To help understand their common conversion pathways, we could look at Google Analytics’ Multi-Channel Funnels section, specifically the Top Conversion Paths section.

Below we see a variety of conversion paths for the client. Row 14 shows 46 conversions on the website that began with paid search exposure and ended with users arriving via direct traffic.

Date Range: Jul 1, 2019 – Dec 31, 2019
Date Range: Jul 1, 2019 - Dec 31, 2019

We see this same pathway of paid search to direct traffic in a client within the architectural software space.

Date Range: Jul, 2019 – Dec 31, 2019
Date Range: Jul, 2019 - Dec 31, 2019 Image

It’s worth pointing out in these data sets, that although the paid search to direct traffic pathway may not be the most common for a given client, it can still produce meaningful amounts of conversions that speak to how PPC campaigns ultimately impact direct traffic.

How SEO Campaigns Positively Impact Direct Traffic

There are 2 primary ways in which we can see the influence of SEO campaigns on direct traffic. The first, is that a large percentage of direct traffic visits in your analytics are in fact organic traffic visits. We’ll dive into how that’s possible below. The second, is that SEO campaigns indirectly increase brand awareness which often then leads to an increase in direct traffic.

In 2014, Groupon conducted an experiment to better understand where their direct traffic was actually deriving. Ultimately they found that up to 60% of the traffic that’s called “Direct” within their analytics platform, was actually from organic traffic visits. Google Analytics miscategorized this traffic as direct. Much of this was due to the fact that Google could not determine traffic source information from a variety of mobile browsers and so it automatically deemed the traffic “Direct”.

While your own site may not be this drastic in underreporting Organic traffic visits, it is highly likely that a substantial portion of the traffic called direct in your analytics actually came from Organic searches.

How Gains in Non-Brand Organic Traffic Lead to Increases in Direct Traffic

At Digital Reach, we also frequently see gains in direct traffic accompanied by spikes in non-brand keyword rankings / organic traffic. Non-brand keywords refer to search terms that are generic in nature, with no mention of a specific brand in the query. Examples of non-brand keywords: marketing attribution software, cloud data management platform, video hosting solutions.

The example below highlights how an increase in non-brand keyword rankings / organic traffic. The analytics were taken from a B2B software client within the healthcare vertical.

Date Range: Jul 1, 2019 to Dec 31 2019 vs. Previous Year
Source: Google Analytics of DRA client

We see a 113% YOY increase in organic traffic, along with a 60.6% increase in direct traffic visits. We also see some milder gains in email / referral traffic. There were no paid advertising campaigns of any kind running so paid media traffic was 0 for this time period.

For keyword rankings, we saw a strong increase in the total number of ranking keywords for the client’s domain. In July 2019, the domain ranked for 7,122 organic keywords. By December 2019, the domain ranked for 8,821 organic keywords.

Organic Keywords Image

Based on this data and the context that the client had 0 online or offline advertising campaigns running, we can likely conclude that a large chunk of the 60% direct traffic increase came from organic search and SEO efforts.


Across both PPC and SEO campaigns, we’ve seen how these channels ultimately impact direct traffic in meaningful ways. Increases in paid media traffic and organic SEO traffic very often yield gains in direct traffic as well. We can also often see a multi-channel conversion pathway, that begins with paid search and ultimately ends with direct traffic. Last, there’s evidence to suggest that a lot of Direct traffic may actually be organic traffic.

As you review your analytics reports, we strongly encourage you to think of direct traffic not as simply people going straight to your brand’s website, but as likely users that originated from other marketing sources. By diving into analytics reports like the Multi-Channel Funnels section, you can begin to better understand the true pathways people followed to find your website. From there, you can better allocate your marketing dollars and resources.

A Substantial Portion of Direct Traffic Is Actually Organic Traffic

Overall guide to direct traffic: https://moz.com/blog/guide-to-direct-traffic-google-analytics