‘Direct Traffic’ explained
When a user clicks a link in any kind of non-browser client, from Outlook to a desktop AIR app to the countless mobile and tablet apps, no referrer information is passed for that visit and your analytics software basically throws up its hands and puts the visit in the ‘Direct Traffic’ bucket. The assumptions behind this fallback behavior show just how arcane referrer analysis is — if a visit didn’t come from another webpage (i.e. no referrer data), someone must have typed the URL directly into their browser address bar.
If you’ve spent the last few years wondering why the proportion of ‘Direct Traffic’ to your site has been on the rise, the answer is the growing usage of non-browser clients, especially on mobile. And since 2/3 of Twitter consumption is happening in desktop and mobile clients*, it’s safe to say that a lot of your ‘Direct Traffic’ is actually coming from Twitter.
How Twitter sends traffic through other sites
While the incredible growth of mobile apps and desktop clients and their importance in the Twitter ecosystem is news to no one, the value Twitter drives through content syndication is a bit more surprising: more than 1 in 8 visits driven by Twitter sharing are actually referred from other sites. Many other sites use Twitter’s API to pull in Tweets that they display on their own sites, where links in those Tweets are then clicked. For example, LinkedIn shows Twitter posts on their site. Every update on LinkedIn says ‘via Twitter.’ Yet when someone clicks on one of those links, the referrer will be linkedin.com, even though it only got to LinkedIn because someone shared it on Twitter first.
Twitter Traffic Tweets
The same is true of Tweets [twitter traffic] syndicated to Facebook, About.Me, and myriad other websites that allow users to connect your Twitter feed directly. And because Twitter’s API is open and most Tweets are public by default, there are also many applications and sites that display Tweets based on hashtags, search terms, and other criteria without a user ever needing to connect their own feed.
Twitter Traffic Examples
In addition to the programmatic syndication of Tweets through Twitter’s API, sharing is fundamentally social and the human element is responsible for much of the serendipity that makes social media so powerful. A great example of that is a Tweet by @zeyneparsel, who only had 144 followers at the time. However, she happens to be a self-proclaimed “veteran hipsterologist” and her Tweet was on the subject of hipsterism (?!). As a result, the link contained in her Tweet ended up being included in a Psychology Today blog post on hipsterism, which drove a significant amount of traffic.
In these cases, which showcase the amplification effect that makes Twitter so uniquely valuable to publishers and marketers, analyzing referrer data alone would attribute traffic to a variety of other sites, even though it all originated with sharing on Twitter.
Improving social attribution
Last week, MG Siegler noted that Google+ started rewriting all outbound clicks to come from plus.google.com. Facebook has rewritten outbound links for quite a while due to phishing/malware and privacy concerns. And both LinkedIn and StumbleUpon frame all external pageviews, which means you can see all the views they drive. As t.co rolls out to 100% of the links shared on Twitter (a topic we’ve previously covered in some depth), they may very well start rewriting all clicks on t.co links to show Twitter as the referrer. This would ensure Twitter gets the credit they deserve for traffic they send to publishers, but it would have the downside of obfuscating the diverse paths that a tweeted link can take.
Until then, it’s possible to correctly attribute visits driven from Twitter sharing by tagging your outgoing links using a solution like Google Analytics campaign tracking parameters. For example, the Tweet Buttons on Business Insider use links like this:
Google Analytics can then properly attribute traffic to those buttons. Google Analytics offers a handy URL Builder tool, and other analytics solutions, like Omniture, support similar campaign tracking parameters of their own.