Explaining the differences between direct and organic web traffic used to be easy — but not anymore.

If you were to ask someone what the difference is between direct and organic website traffic, they would probably be able to warrant a good guess, purely based on the terms’ wording. They might tell you that direct traffic comes from going straight into a website by entering its URL into a browser or clicking a bookmark, while organic traffic comes from finding the site somewhere else, like through a search engine.

They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either — in fact, these were standard definitions at one point in time. But unfortunately, things aren’t that simple anymore.

Tracking and Security

Essentially, what distinguishes direct from organic traffic today is tracking. According to Business2Community, direct traffic is composed of website visits which have “no referring source or tracking information.” A referring source can be a search engine, or it can be a link from another website. Direct traffic can include visits that result from typing the URL directly into a browser, as the simple definition suggests.

Organic traffic, on the other hand, are those visits which are tracked by another entity — usually because they have arrived through search engines — but also from other sources. Hubspot’s definition emphasizes the term “non-paid visits,” because paid search ads are considered a category of their own. But this is where the lines between direct and organic start to get little blurry.

Google’s decision last year to prioritize secure sites in its search rankings has affected the categorization of web traffic. Secure sites are prefaced by HTTPS rather than HTTP — so as you might imagine, everyone now wants their site to use HTTPS in order to increase traffic.

But what type of traffic will it attract? Put simply, any traffic which comes from an insecure referring source to a site using HTTPS cannot be tracked. According to these definitions, organic traffic has a referring source, but if analytics can’t actually figure out where the traffic is coming from, it will be classified as direct.

Privacy Settings

Privacy settings can also have an impact on how traffic is defined. Users have control over this themselves: a simple click can tell your browser to abstain from reporting where it has come from. Google has also taken steps to protect user privacy by encrypting keyword data, according to Simpleview.

What this means is that if someone visits a website and is logged into their Google account, the site owner cannot see the search keywords they used to get there. This has resulted in a great deal of organic traffic being incorrectly marked as direct. The same thing happened to Apple iOS 6 users carrying out Google searches through the Safari browser, after the operating system’s privacy settings were changed, as Search Engine Land reports.

Mostly Organic?

So just how much of the traffic that finds itself labeled as direct is actually organic? Groupon conducted an experiment to try to find out, according to Search Engine Land. They de-indexed their site for the better part of a day and looked at direct and organic traffic, by hour and by browser, to pages with long URLs, knowing that pages with shorter URLs actually do get a large amount of direct traffic, as they can be typed quickly and easily into a browser. The results showed a 50% drop in direct traffic, clearly demonstrating how all of these other factors come into play during the analytics process.

How can marketers ensure that their traffic reports are as accurate as possible? One of the best solutions, according to Megalytic, is to tag URLs with tracking parameters. It’s probably best to do this manually, though there are several URL builders available which can be helpful.

At the end of the day, webmasters just need to know their sites: chances are your analytics tool is more like a person than a software package, and will classify traffic in irrational ways. I’ve stumbled across website traffic originating from diverse and confusing sources being classed as direct — often requiring a considerable amount of thought and exploration to work out what is happening.

However, by understanding how people actually use your site and what their intentions are, you can find out what all traffic (including organic and direct) really means. The point is, traffic classification probably won’t become any clearer any time soon — we just have to think smart and make sense of it.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer search engine optimization and analytics services to help businesses transform their websites into visible sources of knowledge online and answer the questions that matter most to your prospects. Learn more about SEO and analytics here.

(Image credit: JANNIK SELZ/Unsplash)

Author Oliver Cox

Having originally joined the company as a writer in 2013, Oliver currently works as a full-time member of L&T's sales team to prospect, nurture and help close sales leads in the US and UK markets. Oliver is a graduate of the University of Liverpool and is a prolific musician and author.

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