Pandas, Naked Mole Rats, and Direct Session Attribution

Pandas, Naked Mole Rats, and Direct Session Attribution

I’ve heard a lot of Google Analytics advice in my time. And there’s one topic that grinds my gears. It’s a common answer to the question “What is a direct session?”

A common answer is that it is an attribution for when someone types in the URL, or has bookmarked your site. 

Simpsons: Pure Hogwash

Direct Sessions: Not So Cut and Dry

A session is direct when it has no referral information to give attribution. So if I type in a website URL, or bookmark it, sure, it may result in a direct session. But these may be only a fraction of your direct visits. 

Browsers open in-app (including email apps). Direct Visit. Http:// → https:// session transfer: Direct Visit. Click on a link from a desktop chatting application. Direct Visit. And a thousand other reasons. 

Blows your mind, right? 

Wait, I’m not done. 

Sometimes, you do have direct visits – someone has typed in your URL or bookmarked your page. And Google Analytics puts it in another bucket.

This image was taken from an Odd Squad episode. If you don’t know what Odd Squad is, you should find out.

Why On Earth Would Google Do This? 

Google Analytics wants to figure out where your traffic comes from. Yes, they want to help you. But mostly, they want you to buy ads.  

That means that they will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING, to give credit to a source that isn’t Direct.  

Wait A Minute, What About My Pandas

Washingtonians love their pandas. I mean LOVE. I mean, build-papier-mache-statues-and-place-them–throughout-the-city love. I’m serious. Google “Washington DC Panda Statues” and look at the images. It’s okay. I’ll wait. 

The National Zoo has it’s very own Panda Cam! I’d link to it, except you’d go to the site and cease to be a productive member of society. Local IT directors send out memos, telling staff to limit their panda-watching for the sake of the office bandwidth. 

People in Washington spend hours on the Panda Cam. 


Many of those people probably have the Panda Cam bookmarked. They go to the Panda Cam directly every day. 

By every definition, these folks should be direct, right? But not always. 

And Naked Mole Rats. You Promised Naked Mole Rats, Too. 

Consider the following scenario. 

You’re on Zoo’s mailing list. You just got a newsletter and OMG THERE’S A NAKED MOLE RAT CAM ALSO!!! So you click the link and watch. But I’ve got news for you, friend. Naked mole rats aren’t as fun as pandas. 

Image from Naked Mole Rate Cam, dated 2/26/2020.
This is what you’ll see most of the time on the Naked Mole Rat Cam. Sometimes, you might get lucky and see a moving flash through the tubes. I’m guessing those are the mole rates. Who knows.

Done with Naked Mole Rats, you go back to your handy Panda Cam bookmark. And continue to do so, daily, like the dirty little panda-lover you are. 

Guess what? Even though you are clicking a bookmark, everyday you’re an email visitor. Because one time, you were suckered into clicking on an email with the promise of adorable naked mole rats, who never emerge from hiding. And Google Analytics DOES NOT WANT TO GIVE CREDIT TO A DIRECT SOURCE. EVER!!! 

So What’s a Gal Desperately Seeking Accurate Attribution To Do? 

It turns out, there is a secret* dimension called “Non-Direct Session.”

Image from Google Analytics, showing Direct Session as the Secondary dimension to the Default Channel Grouping.

So now you can see referrals that were attributed to a channel, which, upon subsequent visits, were actually direct. 

I encourage organizations who have or are seeking visitor loyalty like this to include the non-direct session dimension in their regular reporting. It’s not that your emails shouldn’t get love. But it will give you a better sense of the whole picture. 

And now you know. And knowing is half the battle. 

* By secret, I mean it’s completely and totally available to anyone as long as you know it exists.