Why Are My Traffic Sources Listed as Unknown?

Published by
James Parsons
on October 01, 2014
Posted in Resources

When you’re looking into your analytics data, something in your traffic sources may give you pause.  “Unknown traffic.”  Isn’t the whole purpose of analytics to let you know where your traffic is coming from and what it’s doing?  What’s the use, if your traffic source is unknown?

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom.  Unknown traffic is typically good traffic, you just aren’t told where it’s from.  There are a number of reasons for this, stemming from different types of traffic.

Unknown Traffic – Direct Traffic

Direct traffic can show up in your analytics in one of two ways; either as listed Direct Traffic or as traffic from an Unknown Source.

Direct traffic that is actually labeled as direct traffic has to meet a specific set of criteria.  The visitor must not have a Google Analytics cookie with any campaign information.  They must also arrive from a source that does not have an HTTP referrer.  Google Analytics cookies last a long time by default, so users who show up as direct have either cleared their cookies, blocked cookies, or haven’t been to your site in six months or more.

Direct traffic that does not meet the criteria, but does not have a referrer listed, will be labeled as traffic from an unknown source.  For example, it’s possible that the user has visited your site before and bookmarked a subpage.  The next time they return to that subpage, the traffic will be labeled as unknown.

Direct traffic is generally good traffic.  In some cases, it can be a sign of bots hitting your site and causing a higher volume of refreshes, but you can often spot this through the Direct Traffic – Bounced version in your analytics sources.

Unknown Traffic – YouTube Embeds

Unknown-Traffic-YouTube-Embeds

This unknown traffic source is specific to YouTube in the YouTube Analytics menus.  YouTube records two types of unknown traffic; direct and embedded.

YouTube Direct traffic is traffic that can come from any of the other unknown sources on this list, which include bookmarks, mobile apps and cookieless traffic.  Embedded traffic comes from plays of your videos when those videos are embedded into another website.  You cannot view embedded traffic from your traffic sources report.  You can view it on a per-video basis on the playback locations report.

The playback locations report will show various locations in a chart.  The majority of the chart will likely be consumed by the YouTube Watch page.  The channel page is the other major on-YouTube source.  YouTube categorizes other traffic from browsers it can’t record as YouTube Other.  You can see embedded players on a per-website basis for individual video views here.  You can also see app plays.  Mobile plays used to be their own category, but they have been divided between browser-based watch page plays and mobile app plays.

Obviously, this sort of traffic is good.  It’s also specific to YouTube, so if you aren’t concerned with YouTube analytics, this won’t be a factor in your direct traffic sources.

Unknown Traffic – Dark Social Traffic

Social traffic is well-known.  Social traffic includes traffic from known social media sites, including the big sites such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Intagram and StumbleUpon.  It also labels sources such as Reddit, Flickr, Myspace and WordPress.  The definition of social traffic is actually fairly broad, according to Analytics.

Dark social traffic is traffic that comes from social sources that aren’t quite trackable.  When you examine your direct traffic, you see traffic coming to two different sorts of landing pages.  One sort is the basic landing page that might display on a business card or a print advertisement.  These are short, simple URLs that are very likely typed in by the person visiting, and are considered direct traffic.

The other sort is traffic that lands on long, complex URLs with number strings, URL parameters and other modifiers that are very unlikely to have been typed by a human hand.  It can be assumed that this traffic comes from a clicked link, but no referral appears.  Programs like AIM, Skype or an email client won’t send referral data, and that’s where this dark social traffic comes from.

Dark social traffic is obviously very good.  It’s traffic that comes from direct word of mouth, in a digital age.

Unknown Traffic – Blocked Analytics

Unknown-Traffic-Blocked-Analytics

Google Analytics, and most other tracking software, relies on code that executes in the browser.  Most of the time, this code is JavaScript.  Every web browser gives you the option of blocking JavaScript, because of how frequently it can be used to exploit security holes.  Some plugins, such as NoScript, also allow script blocking on a widespread scale.

When a user visits your site, your will record a hit, but little else.  No detailed information can be collected, because the scripts that would do that collection are blocked.  This is traffic, direct or referred, coming from a source that does not execute analytics.

This traffic is also commonly known as Dark Search traffic, combining the meme of Dark Social with the phenomenon of Google’s restrictions on information, including their new unlisted keyword information.  This tends to lead to a drop in organic search traffic and a corresponding rise in unknown traffic.

Unknown Traffic – App Visits

When a mobile or tablet user visits your site trough some form of web browsing app, there’s a chance that their information will not be tracked.  Sometimes this is due to the browser the user is using; some block cookies, some don’t execute scripts, some hide all referral data and more.  Sometimes it’s due to the data reported by the device, hiding some information.  In any case, an app hit is not always counted appropriately as mobile traffic.

All forms of app traffic are typically good, whether they are reported or not.  Very few traffic boosting bots will simulate mobile user agents, so you can guess that your mobile traffic is entirely legitimate.  In fact, almost all traffic from an unknown source is valuable.  The only problem is that, without a known source to track, you have a harder time identifying which platforms to focus on and which to put on the back burner while you advertise.

Written by James Parsons

James Parsons

James is a content marketing and SEO professional who enjoys the challenge of driving sales through blogging while creating awesome and useful content.

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