If you work in digital and use Google Analytics, there’s a high likelihood that you’ve noticed a big surge in direct traffic when compared to last years figures. Admittedly we were left scratching our heads slightly for the first month or so – the clients we were observing this “phenomenon” on hadn’t increased their offline marketing and were still experiencing a reasonable amount of enquiries.

So, what happened?

The “cookie law” was first introduced in May 2011. This was a directive aimed at protecting the data that site owners held on users by informing them that the site would hold certain browsing data and behaviours about their visit. The cookie law change was effectively skirted around by “implied consent” with either a popup box saying “we use cookies” while most chose to disregard the policy altogether. The EU lawmakers saw that their initial intentions had been unsuccessful and as such reviewed the laws in January 2017 with the drafts in the finalisation stages in May 2017.

As such, there was a three-month period whereby site operators could bring their sites into line with the new regulations which were “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” of cookies and tracking data.

What we see after that is a surge in direct traffic as a direct result after September 2017:

Analytics data showing an increase in direct traffic.

So, why is it happening?

When you visit a website, the cookie itself identifies the source you used to visit the webpage. If you visited via paid search or organic, this is attributed to such within Google Analytics. Given that the cookies are now “opt-in” there has been a significant increase in the number of people who are now “untraceable” and as such these visits while still monitored statistically – have been attributed to direct because there is no way to know where they came from without the cookie.

How do I get around it?

Simply put, you can’t, but awareness of the fact is just as useful. What will become more apparent over time is that cookies from previous visits will have expired too, so these visits are regarded as new “no cookie” visits and as such this number will only continue to rise.

We lost the ability to view the keyword data within analytics because of the rise of “not provided” and now we’ve lost the ability (at-least for now) to see the full picture of where our users have come from.

However – for those who are au fait with excel there could be a way that we’re experimenting with where we understand that most of the visits outside of the homepage will be from sources other than direct. It makes sense then to download a list of pages that have been visited from direct and exclude the homepage while sorting the data into likely channels. This does, however, require approximations and some guesswork – if you knew that 70% of your traffic pre-cookie law was organic, 20% paid and 5% direct and you sort the data into those segments it could give a clearer picture.

The Future

With GDPR coming into effect on 25th May 2018 means that there is no going back either. There will be other solutions, some tracking software such as ResponseTap boasts 12-month tracking cookies, there are options available on contact forms to fill in “how did you find our site” and other workarounds, but for the time being – we’re having to accept that at least some of our Organic traffic is going to continue to be attributed as direct.

But if the traffic is still there and is statistically relevant, isn’t that all that matters? Or is Google playing a long game with us marketers and could provide a practical solution for a higher cost?

For more insight into how your traffic is behaving and how we can help you, contact our performance team here.

By Dan Akister

Digital Specialist

Digital Pay Per Click SEO

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