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Is Direct Traffic a Google Ranking Factor?

Whether Google will directly factor traffic into your search rankings has been a topic of intense debate for years.

Will Google factor direct website traffic into your search rankings?

To be clear, Direct Traffic is the URL where a person (or bot – we’ll get to that later) navigates directly to your website, not through other channels such as search engines or social media platforms.

They already know you, which tells Google good things about your authority and popularity — at least that's what the theory says.

Let's see what the experts have to say about it.

Disclaimer: Direct Traffic as a Ranking Factor

The idea here is that going directly to a website is an endorsement of your page in much the same way as a link.

Direct traffic is any website visit without http_referrer (for some reason).

To factor direct traffic into ranking factors, Google needs to measure direct visits to your website in some way using one of its tools.

Considering it has Chrome, Google Search Console, Google Analytics, its DNS service, Google Fiber, and more, there's no shortage of possibilities as to where these click data comes from.

Evidence of direct traffic as a ranking factor

A Backlinko article dated January 2020, 1 states, "It has been confirmed that Google uses data from Google Chrome to determine how many people visit a website (and how often).

Clicking on that source link will take you to an article based on a Brighton SEO 2013 fireside chat with three former Googlers: Fili Wiese, Jonas Weber and Alfredo Pulvirenti.

There, we found this in a conversation about whether Google uses social signals as a ranking factor:

"...Perhaps the most important point of the meeting is that Google definitely uses Chrome user data and can track every single click on it.

If you look today, you'll read on an authority site that Google confirms that it uses Chrome data to determine how many people visit a site and how often.You can see Google employees verify this and logically might believe it to be true.

In effect, these former employees were talking about Google's use of Chrome data -- not how, or if it was in an algorithm or test in the field.

All of this to prove that, as of April 2013, Google used Chrome data sometime before that (since these were former employees, not current employees) to track clicks.

If you skip the date, or think the article dated January 2020, 1 at the time is accurate, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was actually confirmed by Google (to be very clear: it wasn't).

However, this has only happened recently, and in a large way.

In 2017, Semrush released its first ranking factor study and named direct traffic the number one ranking factor for Google search.

Chaos ensues.

SEO pros battle it out on Twitter.

People wrote blog posts for and against it.

There's been a lot of back-and-forth on this issue over the years, and retelling it now doesn't change anything.

So let’s jump right into the two most plausible articles that provide some pretty compelling evidence why the idea of ​​direct traffic as a ranking factor is deeply flawed.

Evidence against direct traffic as a ranking factor

The first of the aforementioned blog posts is a video conversation between Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen about the fallacy of reading too much ranking research like Semrush does .

As Eric explained:

"It's possible for two things to happen at the same time, but have little to do with each other.My favorite example is that ice cream sales are highly correlated with drowning deaths.

So one might conclude that an increase in ice cream sales leads to more drownings, or even more stupidity, and vice versa.But we know the real reason these two things are so related.

(They're related because it's summer and people are swimming and eating ice cream.But one doesn't cause the other to happen.

A website with the qualities of saying great things to Google is also likely to speak well to users and get more direct traffic.

But that doesn't mean that traffic leads to a rise in rankings.

Another great resource on this topic is Martin MacDonald, who uses the quality of direct traffic as a potential ranking signal.he explained:

"The technical definition of direct traffic is just requests made without http_referrer, which is an overly vague concept.

Most of the time, we're not talking about direct type traffic, but:

  • Requests from non-web browsers.
  • Many URL shorteners.
  • Social media platforms and apps.
  • Links with mismatched security protocols.
  • Links shared across devices (especially desktop to mobile).

In the end, Direct Traffic is too easy for tricks.

As MacDonald puts it, "If all you need to do is remove the referrer on all your internal links to 'fool' Google into thinking it's direct traffic, you can do that with a few lines of PHP code or server configuration …”

You can run bots or buy website access.You can fake it yourself.

At the end of the day, does direct traffic tell Google something other signals don't?

Direct Traffic as a Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Google does not use direct traffic as a search ranking signal.

It's noisy, easy to manipulate, and difficult to collect and verify.

Be wary of studies that describe the correlation between direct traffic and search rankings as causal.

Extended reading:

Is the deep link ratio a Google ranking factor?

Are crawl errors and crawl budget a Google ranking factor?

Top 8 Google Ranking Factors - What Really Matters for SEO

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