Google Analytics now reports untagged adwords traffic as direct traffic

We recently had a spike in traffic for one of our clients that we couldn’t explain. The spike appeared in organic traffic when we excluded their main keyword but we couldn’t find out what the source of this traffic was. As we couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it, we decided that we might as well go to Google and get the benefit of their wisdom on the subject. Although they never did explain our spike it threw up an interesting change in the way that Google treats untagged traffic.


While asking Google about our strange traffic, we mentioned that we suspected that it might be untagged traffic. They countered by ignoring the main question and saying that if it were untagged traffic then it would appear as direct traffic. We had understood that untagged traffic would appear as organic traffic, hence our original theory about the cause of this activity, so this was surprising.

Google then clarified the situation saying that

untagged PPC traffic will now also be appearing as ”Direct“, whereas prior to the changes at the end of March, this traffic would have been considered ”Organic“.”

So now we have two questions

1) Why make this change? Personally I would rather that if tagging goes missing that the traffic is still at least reported as being from a search engine rather than direct. 2) Why do we have a big, unexplained spike in organic traffic?

Has anyone else noticed this? If anyone has any answers or theories as to why Google have made this move then we’d love to hear them.

Richard Cotton

Richard Cotton

Richard Cotton joins the team at Distilled as the Paid Search Marketer. He graduated with a Philosophy degree from Southampton University and will therefore put his analytical brain to good use as our dedicated PPC marketer. Rich C-h264720-v2 //...   read more

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  1. Rich: The traffic from untagged paid search campaigns does show up in direct now. The change was associated with a number of valid concerns.

    This is sub-optimal, Direct is the last place this should show up.

    Thanks for highlighting the issue.


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  2. Hi Avinash - thanks for stopping by. This change really surprised me for two reasons:

    1) Why did they do it? Surely organic traffic is the best place for the traffic if you can't tag it as paid? At least you still get keyphrase data...

    2) We still don't see this change in a few of our accounts. We have a couple of clients who for whatever reason struggle with tagging their PPC and it's still coming through as organic for them. Does this change only apply to new accounts?

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  3. We experienced this problem with GA, paid search appearing as direct traffic. My first thought was either this was a monumentally responsive TV campaign someone was running on our behalf or something was rotten in the state of GA. Unsurprisingly turned out to be the latter.

    First manifested itself from around 23rd March. Fixed fairly promptly but has played havoc with my traffic share KPIs for that period.

    I now put this down to Google giving me an insight of what it is to be a superbrand.

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  4. @ Avinash - No problem, as Tom said I'd love to know what the thinking was that prompted the change.

    @Dan - thanks for commenting. As I say in the blog, we stumbled across this change so it's interesting to hear about a real experience of it.

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  5. Rich/Tom,

    Quick update.

    The issue will only affect accounts (perhaps yours!) where you have auto tagged your campaigns (in Adwords checked the box) but not applied cost data.

    See this for more:

    [Checkout the cell with row = "Auto-tagging", and column = "Cost data not applied".]

    This means:

    -> If you have auto tagged the campaigns and applied cost data: You are fine.

    -> If you are manually tagging your ppc campaigns (for any search engine): You are fine.

    -> If your paid search campaigns for other search engines are not tagged: You are fine (though in this case those visits will show up in Organic).

    The only issue is the one I have specified above (which is not optimal, should be addressed).


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  6. Thanks Avinash. We still haven't got to the bottom of where the strange traffic came from, but at least you've shown us what it can't be. Very interesting!

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  7. Ok this is the last time you'll hear from me. : )

    This issue is now fixed, the corner case I had mentioned in my comment above.

    So one less thing for you to worry about!



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  8. Thanks Avinash! You're always welcome round these parts - especially when you're helping out so much :-)

    I know this is quite an obscure part of the tagging equation but it's always good to have complete knowledge about these things, makes debugging them so much easier.

    Thanks again

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  9. the direct traffic is decreased and the revenue from the direct traffic is also decreased. how can we solve this , how we can increase the DT..but SE traffic increased but the issue is with DT.

    Previous month it is 10%
    this month it is 4.6 %

    is there any issues with direct can we increase the DT and the revenue from that....any suggestions

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  10. I have had this exact same problem on my site. It happened over a three day period and increased unique visitors by 2000%. Then it went back to normal.

    I could see in my visitor statistics that the visitors came from unique URLs as you'd expect. There was no referrer / the URL was directly typed into the browser. The hits came within a few hours on each of the three days.

    My hosting company could not understand what this was either.

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