What are direct and referral traffic, and how can you optimise your website for them?We previously looked at a trilogy of best practice Google Analytics Dashboard, however this time we’ll be dissecting the most important Google Analytics reports, beginning with traffic source on direct and referral traffic.

Monitoring where incoming traffic to your site derives from is key in determining which channels are performing well and which are underperforming and can be optimised. Approximately 75% of internet users do not go further than the first page of search results, so you need to make sure your pages are optimised to appear high up in search rankings.

Referral traffic

If a user clicks on a hyperlink from a page on a different website and lands on your website, this is counted as referral traffic. The originating site is named a ‘referrer’ in Google Analytics as it indicates traffic from one site to another.

How referrals are tracked: When a user clicks on a link to your site, a request is sent by the browser to your server. This request includes data about the last site that was visited which is captured by Google Analytics and displayed as referral traffic.

Measuring and optimising referral traffic: To measure the success of traffic from different referrals, it’s important to pick the correct metrics to analyse referral traffic. For example, if your goal is to attract visitors and have them look at more than one blog post or spend time looking at data or statistics, then metrics such as average time spent and pages per visit should be used to determine which referrers send the highest quality of traffic to your site.

Direct Traffic

A referral is recorded as direct traffic if:

– The URL was typed directly into the browser

– The visitor clicked your website link within a PDF / SMS / Chat message

– The visitor clicked your website link within an email (which hadn’t been tracked via a campaign)

– The visitor had your site bookmarked

– If your website had been set as an auto loading home page

– Visitors driven to your website by offline campaigns: TV, Radio, billboard ads

How to determine the source of direct traffic: The URL Tagging Tool allows you to generate tags for links within PDFs, emails and shortened URLs to help determine the source of traffic. With regards to bookmarked sites and visitors typing the URL directly into the browser – there is little that can be done in terms of isolating the source.


Analysing referral and direct traffic can provide useful insight to optimise incoming traffic by tagging links which can be tracked to create more visibility surrounding the source of traffic. Analysis of which sites produce the most traffic will also allow you to explore avenues to optimise those which may be generating less referral traffic.

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