Could Direct Traffic be a ranking factor?
Yes, according to SEMRush who recently updated their ‘SEO ranking factors report’, controversially slotting Direct Traffic into the #1 slot.
The #1 ranking factor? I doubt it.
An outcome of something else? More likely.
What is Direct Traffic?
By Direct traffic, SEMRush are referring to traffic generated by users who type the URL into the browser bar.
Technically (and we need to look at this technically as it’s algorithmic) ‘direct’ traffic is merely traffic that doesn’t include an http_referrer, which could also include traffic from sources such as;
- Bookmarked URLs
- Non-tagged EDMs (Very common)
- HTTPS to HTTP referral traffic (the referrer is stripped)
- Social Media platforms
- Shared links on devices
Adobe Analytics actually refers to Direct as ‘None’ which is perhaps a more accurate description.
How Could Google Reliably Get this Data?
This is the key sticking point for me. To be a ranking factor, yet alone the #1 ranking factor, the data would have be readily available, plentiful, consistently accurate and genuine.
What Google have been consistent about is in not using incomplete data sources in the algorithm.
When previously asked whether Google Analytics data was used as part of the algorithm, John Mueller of Google stated:
Yeah, we don’t use Google Analytics at all with regards to the search algorithm. And part of that is just because not all sites use Analytics and so you can’t really balance we have some signals for this site here and we have no signals at all for this commerce site here, what does that actually mean? How do you weigh that?
How about Chrome then? They could also use clickstream data from that right?
Yep, but only 45% of Australian’s use Chrome. Same deal applies; incomplete data.
Couldn’t This be Easily Manipulated?
Haha, yes, so easily!
So easily in fact that it wouldn’t make sense to use it as a signal.
Simply hire a click farm to type your URL into a browser bar tens of thousands of times a day and you’ll rank #1!
Doesn’t make sense right?
So, Could Direct Traffic be a Ranking Factor?
I’m sceptical that direct traffic has a causal impact on SEO, however I’ve absolutely no doubt that there is a strong correlation that higher ranked sites happen to also have more direct traffic. Why?
Because they have good marketing.
And is good marketing a ranking factor? Absolutely!
Good marketing generates brand awareness.
Brand awareness results in increased brand searches.
Could brand search volume be a ranking factor? Maybe. It certainly makes more sense as it’s a both a consistent and complete data source. Brand searches combined with a keyword? Now we’re talking relevancy. E.g. ‘ANZ home loans’.
Good marketing is also likely to generate more links. Better links. Links that competitors can’t copy. And links are undeniably a proven ranking factor.
And guess what? All of this combined would also likely lead to more direct traffic.
Direct traffic is an outcome of good marketing and sites that rank higher tend to be better marketed.