Important Exception to Google Analytics Last Click Attribution!

Cutting right to the chase, Google Analytics uses last click attribution with ONE important exception, direct traffic.

*Think you already know everything there is to know about Direct Traffic and Last Click Attribution? Skip down to “How Does This Affect Me?” and you might be surprised!

So why does Google Analytics handle direct traffic differently? What can this mean for your data? Understanding exactly what direct traffic is and how Google Analytics tracks it can not only help you to better understand your reports, it can save you a lot of time and confusion.

Direct Traffic

First let’s take a look at exactly what direct traffic is. Direct traffic is any traffic to your website that does not have referring information. Common examples of this include bookmarks, typing a URL directly into your browser, links in common twitter applications, instant message links etc. The most important thing here is to understand that direct traffic doesn’t mean the visitor somehow “directly” came to the site, but rather that Google Analytics has no information about where this visitor came from.

Last Click Attribution

Now let’s take a quick look at how last click attribution works. If I do a search in Google and click on an organic link, Google Analytics will record my referring information as Google Organic. Then if later that day I’m surfing the web and I see a link to the site I visited earlier and click on it Google Analytics will overwrite the previous referring information of Google Organic with Referred Traffic. In summation, the “Last” thing I click on will be the source that gets credit for the visit to my website.

Why is Direct Traffic Handled Differently?

Now that we know exactly what direct traffic is, and how last click attribution works, it becomes fairly easy to understand why Direct Traffic is the exception to the rule. The easiest way to demonstrate this is with an example:

A visitor does a search on Google and clicks on an Organic link, setting their referring information to “Google Organic”, and then the next day the visitor comes back to your site via bookmark.

If direct traffic worked the same way as the rest of traffic in Google Analytics, you would over-write the previous referring information (Google Organic) with the “Last Click” (direct traffic). The problem is, overwrite it with what? We established that direct traffic means Google Analytics has no information about the visitor. Since we have no information if we followed the last click attribution method we would overwrite our previous referring data (Google Organic), with nothing!

Clearly there is no benefit of overwriting some information with no information, so instead Google Analytics simply leaves the previous referring information. As a result for the previous example above Google Analytics would show two visits generated from Google Organic, and NOT one Google Organic and one direct visit. This is reasonable for Google Analytics; if not for Google Organic the visitor wouldn’t have found the site, so giving credit for both of these visits to Google Organic makes perfect sense.

How Does This Affect Me?

Everyday Reports

If I’m looking at my Google Analytics and I see I have 100 visits yesterday from Google Organic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that 100 people searched on Google clicked a link and came to my site. It can also mean that 90 people searched on Google today and came to my site, and 10 people searched yesterday on Google and reached my site, but decided to come back VIA bookmark.

Save Time and Confusion

While this may help us to understand our reports better, how does this understanding save you time and confusion? Consider the following examples:

Example 1

Ever turned off a paid search Campaign and continued to see the campaign send you traffic? Direct traffic is the Culprit! If someone clicks on a Google Paid Search ad their source will be written as Google Paid Search (technically cpc in GA). If the visitor then continues to come to your site by a “Direct” method, since the previous data isn’t overwritten they’ll continue to show up as a Paid Search visitor. Ever wasted time trying to figure out how your discontinued paid search campaign is still sending you traffic?

Example 2

You have a website which has just started a new paid search campaign. This website has a landing page specifically designed for this new campaign, and it is only reachable through Google Paid Search. So when you go into Google Analytics to see how this page is performing you are confused to see Yahoo Organic as a source / medium for this landing page. How is this possible?

This is where it gets a bit tricky!

First, someone does a search on Google and clicks on your paid search ad. Once on your PPC specific landing page the visitor decides that they’d like to come back to this page later so they bookmark it. The next day the same visitor is interested in something else on your site, but they happen to be on yahoo at the time. They decide to do a quick search for your brand name and click on a Yahoo Organic link to reach your main site. Later that week the visitor remembers the page they’d bookmarked and decide to go back to it via bookmark. When they follow that bookmark and land on your Paid Search landing page they will show up as a Yahoo Organic visit with your Google PPC page as their landing page!

Following the Google Analytics Referring information through this example:

  1. Click on an Adwords Ad in Google. Referring information is now "Google Paid".
  2. Do a search in Yahoo and click on an organic link. Referring information is now "Yahoo Organic".
  3. Follow your bookmark to the Google PPC landing page. Leave referring information as "Yahoo Organic."

Without understanding that this kind of behavior is possible simply due to how Google Analytics processes data, you might very well spend hours digging through your website and Adwords configuration trying to figure out how Yahoo Organic traffic was reaching your Google Paid Search landing page.

Have you ever seen direct traffic perform unexpectedly in your reports? Do you have any methods for handling or improving the information you do have about direct traffic?

We’d love to hear from you!

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Wil Reynolds
Wil Reynolds
CEO & Vice President