Google Analytics Direct Visits Spike – Is this a Tracking Issue?

If you’ve noticed a strange change in your website’s Google Analytics account whereby your direct traffic has suddenly increased and organic search traffic has suddenly decreased, chances are there is a technical issue with your website or tracking script. In this post we’ll look at the root cause of this issue, which should point you towards a solution.

Key takeaways:

  • A surge in direct traffic with a drop in organic search on Google Analytics often signals a tracking issue.
  • Google Analytics mislabels unattributed traffic as “Direct,” which can come from various untracked sources.
  • A spike in direct traffic can mean analytics errors; check if total traffic remains consistent but is categorized differently by source or channel.
  • A recent example of this issue that I experienced is when a SiteGround anti-bot system was interjecting a captcha page to validate visits before loading our webpage. That page caused our traffic to be mis-attributed – disrupting referral data, falsely inflating direct traffic visits and underreporting organic search traffic (as well as other sources).
  • Fixing the captcha issue resolved the tracking problem.

Understanding Google Analytics traffic source attribution

Before getting at the actual issue, its helpful to understand how different website analytics programs (such as Google Analytics) attribute traffic to a given source.  Typically they do this by setting criteria for various sources based either on the referring URL or other footprints such as tags or source parameters in the URL (including UTM values).  So paid search, organic search, referral traffic, social media traffic, etc. are all identified by these parameters. 

What is “direct” traffic in Google Analytics?

But what about any traffic that the analytics program isn’t able to specifically attribute to one of these source channels?  Generally speaking, most analytics tools (including GA4) attribute that miscellaneous traffic as “Direct”.  In reality, a better name would be something like “Direct or Other” since its really a catchall category for unknown traffic sources.

Direct traffic can be someone who just typed in your URL into a browser.  Or someone who clicked on a bookmark they previously saved, or a link in an email that wasn’t tagged or doesn’t otherwise leave a clear footprint as being from an email program.  It can also include traffic where for some reason the referral source or URL tag was obscured.

What causes a sudden spike in direct traffic?

And now we’ve gotten to the issue.  If your direct traffic suddenly spikes and remains high for a period of time, there is typically a problem with your analytics.  To verify this, check your other channels and see if any of them decreased at the same time.  Or if all of them decreased.  If the total traffic is approximately the same but the allocation by source has changed suddenly (with “Direct” increasing), you might well have an analytics issue.

SiteGround Hosting CAPTCHA can mis-attribute visits as “direct” in GA

I recently discovered this issue on two websites that I run that use SiteGround hosting.  We discovered that the SiteGround captcha screen was serving a noindex tag causing our pages to get deindexed.  Our pages indexed in Google went down, and our rankings and traffic from organic search likewise followed suit. 

But to make matters even worse, when the SiteGround captcha page did its check and validated the user it then redirected to our actual webpage using a meta refresh command.  This caused the referral source in the Google Analytics to be stripped.  Technically the person went from Google to the SiteGround captcha intermediary page (which did not have our GA script on it since its not our page or under our control) and then redirected to our website.  So what the analytics script saw we just people suddenly showing up directly on our website, and thus it attributed the traffic as “Direct” and our “Organic Search” traffic fell as a result. 

Again to try and re-state this, the traffic went from Google (organic) to the SiteGround page, and then from the SiteGround page to our website.  So the original traffic source (Google Organic) was stripped and not seen by the time the visit triggered the Google Analytics script on our site.

The solution

The good news is we fixed the analytics source attribution by removing the SiteGround captcha validation screen, which was the same thing that caused our pages to get de-indexed.  So two birds with one stone if you will.  The bad news is that I first noticed this months ago and did not look further into it (these are side project websites) so now I’ve got 6 months of bad analytics data to go along with a website (well, two websites) that are just now getting re-indexed.  Lesson learned!

Below is a zoomed-in version of the graph at the top of this post, that shows the fix we implemented just 2 days ago. Note that organic search traffic has now jumped, while the direct traffic has fallen back to its correct, accurate level.

If you have the same issue with SiteGround hosting, then you can contact their support and ask them to disable the anti-bot system on your website hosting account. And then make sure you clear your cache at any/all levels.

If you have a similar issue but its not specific SiteGround hosting, then its important to understand that a sudden spike in direct traffic that remains high is likely a mis-attribution issue especially if other traffic sources dropped at the same time. On the other hand, if you just have a spike in direct traffic that lasts a day or two and then returns to normal, then it could be some other factor like an unattributed email campaign, actual bot traffic, etc.

About the Author

Jon Payne

Jon is the founder and lead consultant of Vocational Media Group. He works directly with brands to increase their sales on Amazon, while also tightly controlling costs and protecting margins. Jon also practices what he preaches, by building, acquiring and operating his own private label brands on the Amazon Marketplace.

Vocational Media Group is a digital marketing agency located just outside of Charlotte, NC. We specialize in full-service SEO for businesses looking to improve their presence in Google, as well as Amazon FBA channel management to include Amazon SEO and PPC campaign management.


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