Understanding traffic sources in Google Analytics

20 July 2018

Do you find it tricky to wrap your head around the different traffic sources in Google Analytics?

We’re going to break each source down and help you understand what your figures are actually showing you. There are 7 common traffics sources in Google Analytics that you can expect to see.

Organic search

Organic search shows you that all your hard work with your search engine optimisation is paying off. It lets you know how many users have come through to your website after seeing you listed on a search engine results page (SERP).

If you click on your organic traffic, you’ll be given a bit more detail to break it down further. You might be able to see they key terms the user has typed in to see your website, and you’ll be able to see which search engines are bringing you traffic. For example, you might see that Google / organic brings you the most traffic, and things like Yahoo / organic or Bing /organic bring you in a few more.

Paid search

This traffic source shows you where your paid advertising is being spent, and if it’s bringing you the volume of traffic you’d like it to. It will also show you which of your targeted keywords are attracting clicks and which need a bit of a re-think.

laptop showing traffic sources in google analytics


Direct traffic can sometimes be a bit misleading. Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking you’ve just got lots of people typing in your exact URL or bookmarking your pages, though that does account for some of your direct traffic.

Direct could also occur if one of your regular referrers has migrated their site to a more secure HTTPS address. Your HTTP link on their HTTPS site won’t be tracked correctly and the traffic will appear as direct.

Want to make your site secure with HTTPS? Get in touch.

You might also have forgotten to use a Google Analytics tracking code on one of your new landing pages. If that’s the case and a user moves from an untracked page through to a tracked page, that can also be listed as direct traffic.

You could also be getting direct traffic through what’s been named “dark social.” Trust us, that sounds a lot more dramatic than it is. Lots of link sharing is done using social media as we all know, but you might not have realised that most of it happens privately through instant messaging, email or text. Links shared and clicked in this way will appear as a direct user. You can partially combat this by making sure you’ve got social sharing buttons on all your pages so a user doesn’t have to copy your URL to send on to their friends and family.


Whenever you send our an email to your GDPR compliant mailing list, you want to know how many people came through to your website as a result. You’ll find that traffic data on your Google Analytics under email.

If you correctly track each mailer you send out, you’ll get specific data about individual emails. But don’t worry if you forget, you can dive a little deeper and see what pages people from the email traffic source have clicked on and match that to the content of your emails.

laptop showing different traffic sources in google analytics


This is where you’ll see the results of all the back links through to your site. Google Analytics will show you which referral sites are working well from your listings elsewhere on the web. It’ll also show which might be links you don’t really want.


The social traffic source in Google Analytics shows how many potential customers are visiting your website via your social media. You’ll be able to see how popular your content has been on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest… the list goes on and on.

Remember, if you’re paying to promote a piece of content on social media, give it a clear tracking code. You’ll be able to separate the traffic you’re paying for and the ones that are coming through  organically. Having clear campaigns makes analysing your traffic much easier.


Google Analytics can display traffic as other when it doesn’t entirely know where it came from. You’ll never be able to get rid of this field entirely, unfortunately. You can minimise the amount of unknown traffic by keeping a close watch on your campaigns.

By clicking on Other in your sources breakdown, you’ll gain additional information about where the traffic actually is coming from. It could be a mislabelled social media campaign or email that just needs correcting.

To sum up

There are lots of different traffic sources in Google Analytics that you can expect to see fairly regularly. Analytics is incredibly helpful to gain a detailed understanding of your users and how they interact with your business online.

Making sure you organise your marketing campaigns correctly can help you keep on track of all your traffic. You’ll get a great understanding of the types of marketing that are really good for your business, and which need a little more work to achieve success.

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