Groupon Experiment Suggests Majority of Traffic Reported As Direct Is Really From Organic Search07/14/2014
In web analytics, traffic sources are identified by the referring URL that the browser passes with the request, and when there isn’t one passed, that session is considered to be “direct traffic” (rather than organic search, paid search, social media, newsletters, etc.), under the assumption that a visit with no referrer probably means the visitor either typed the URL into their address bar themselves, or accessed it from a bookmark.
The web team at Groupon has our utmost respect and gratitude for recently sacrificing themselves in the name of SEO science, in order to shed some light into the dark matter of "direct traffic" attribution which, like dark matter, is actually defined by the absence of information.
Get this -- they voluntarily de-indexed themselves from Google, albeit temporarily. For a period of about six hours one day, Groupon.com dropped out of Google search results entirely for period of six hours.
Sound scary? They coordinated this with Google engineers to ensure that, at the end of the six-hour window, they'd be re-indexed right away (which they were). As an interesting side-note, Googlebot didn't stop crawling Groupon during the test window, it just slowed down significantly.
Following this test, they analyzed their log files to compare their direct and organic traffic for this time period with the same day of the previous week. The results were totally dramatic (see the story at SearchEngineLand for the actual graphs), and showed that, for their level-2 and longer URLs, 60% of Groupon's traffic reported as "direct" is actually from Google organic search.
Web analytics experts have suspected this for years, and limited experiments have lent support to this suspicion, but never before have we seen such a statistically-significant study as this Groupon experiment, and it really took a mega-popular site like Groupon with a great supply of long, ephemeral URLs to achieve such compelling results.
The results were even more interesting when broken down by device and browser; while desktop browsers appeared to be under-reporting organic referrals by only 10-20% in general, "direct" traffic from IE browsers was about 75% organic search (presumably due to more restrictive default security settings), and Groupon's "direct" traffic from mobile browsers dropped 50% during the test window.
What this means is that, at least for sites receiving a significant portion of their traffic to long URLs, the percentage of organic traffic vs. direct has been under-reported, and as the original article concludes, so has the value of your SEO efforts.