Marketing Strategy Blog

What's the Difference Between Direct and Organic Sources of Website Traffic?


Said simply: “Organic” search traffic is from users who clicked a link on a search engine like Google or Bing, whereas for “Direct” traffic the source is not known. However, it’s a little more complex than that, so let’s dig into the details.

Traffic Source Breakdown

Whenever a page is requested from a web server, part of the request is to tell the web server what the previous page was. This happens regardless of whether the previous page was on your own site, or if it was on some other site. Note that the previous site doesn’t necessarily have an intentional link to your site—it just happens to be the previous site that they were on. 

Since there are a dizzying number of websites that a site visitor might have been on before coming to your site, analytics helps make sense of them by grouping them into a smaller number of buckets. Google Analytics calls this smaller number of buckets the “Default Channel Grouping”.  

The URL of the previous page contains more than just the referring website domain, it can also contain parameters, or clues, other than just the domain name alone. These other clues are called “UTM parameters”.

If there is no previous page URL, then that empty referral is called “Direct”. So “direct” just means that either the user wasn’t on a web page before they came to your site, or else that referring URL wasn’t received for a technical reason. 

To understand the difference between “direct” and “organic” traffic, it is best to back up and look at all of the default channel groupings from Google Analytics:

  • Direct: A web page request was received but the referring site domain wasn’t given so we don’t know where it came from.  “Direct” equals “Unknown”. 
  • Organic Search: Traffic for which the referring site is a search engine like Google or Bing but wasn’t from a paid ad on those search pages.  
  • Social: Traffic for which the referring site is a social media platform like Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest or, of course, Facebook. 
  • Email: Traffic for which the referring website URL page is tagged as “email”. This could include traffic from an email newsletter. 
  • Affiliates: Traffic for which the referring website URL page is tagged as “affiliate”. Affiliate marketing is a method of making money by earning a commission by promoting the the products of others. A hiking website might have affiliate links to backpacks for sale on Amazon, for example. 
  • Paid Search: Traffic that comes from a paid search campaign, referred to as Cost per Click (CPC) or Pay per Click (PPC).  
  • Other Advertising: Traffic that comes from ads from more obscure banner ad pricing methods like Cost per Acquisition (CPA) advertising. This would be the case if an advertiser paid a media company only if a user performs a specific action like filling out a lead generation form. 
  • Display: Traffic that originated from a paid banner ad campaign. This might be referred to as CPM (Cost per Mille (thousand)) or banner ads. 
  • Referral: Traffic that came from another site (not “direct”), but it isn’t listed above. So we know where they came from, but it doesn’t fit into the list above. 

Direct Traffic

We used to think “direct” traffic came from people who had saved a bookmark for our website. And although a user with a bookmark to our site would show up as “direct”, because there is no previous web page, there are lots of other reasons that the referrer might be unknown.  

If someone typed the URL of your website into their web browser, they would come directly to your site. These are people who truly know your brand. However, it is unlikely that people are typing in long URLs, so if the traffic is to pages other than your homepage, it probably wasn’t typed in. To dig further into this, look at Landing Pages in Google Analytics to see the page that visitors first land on. 

Other common sources of direct traffic are:

  • Mobile apps, which aren’t web pages and therefore don’t have a referring URL. 
  • Emails that don’t have UTM parameters on their links. 
  • Text messages with links in them. 
  • Secure websites (https:) linking to non-secure (http:)

Organic Traffic

“Organic” traffic originates from a search engine results page, but not from a paid ad on the search engine. There is a direct correlation between the effectiveness of your search engine optimization efforts and the amount of organic traffic your site gets from Organic search. 

The more effectively Google and Bing can index your site and place it high on their search engine results pages, the more traffic you will get when people search for keywords that show your site in the search engine results page and then click on a link to your page.

To get the most “organic” search traffic, take a look at these recommendations for SEO tips and tricks for business owners.

Google Analytics was created to help website owners understand if the money they spend on advertising is providing value.  Swift Local Solutions which can help connect more of the right people to your site with local and targeted advertising. Click the link to find out more information about connecting to our audience.




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