The Beginner’s Guide to Google Analytics’ Default Channel Groupings

By Kat, 3 months ago (6 min read)

If you’re new to using Google Analytics, getting to grips with all of the data shown in the platform’s default channel groupings can leave you feeling like the first time you saw algebra at school – slightly overwhelmed and confused by a page of seemingly meaningless numbers and symbols!

To overcome this, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide on Google Analytics’ default channel groupings, arming you with the right know-how to better understand these figures and use them to monitor traffic flow to your website more effectively.

What are the default channel groupings in Google Analytics?

Put simply, these groupings break down all of the traffic coming to your website into distinct categories to show you exactly where your traffic is coming from – giving you a greater insight into the most fruitful (or otherwise) traffic streams for your business’s website. Although you can customise your categories in Google Analytics, the default and most common categories are:

Granted, some of these traffic channels are fairly self-explanatory for digital marketing veterans – but as this is a beginner’s guide, we thought we’d better give you the lowdown on the specifics of each channel so you have all the essential information you need to decipher traffic data.

Direct traffic

As the name suggests, direct traffic refers to any users who visit your site by directly typing your website’s URL into their address bar or copying and pasting it into their browser. Interestingly, this also includes bookmarked pages – so if a user saves a page on your website then visits at a later time, this traffic will contribute to your overall direct traffic figure.

Monitoring direct traffic is useful because it typically gives an indication of brand awareness and customer loyalty, as a user navigating directly to your website is evidently already familiar with your website or brand. With direct traffic, it’s also worth noting that a proportion of this will come via bookmarks (as mentioned above) or search engines’ autocomplete functions, even though technically the user hasn’t physically typed the whole URL in these instances.

Organic traffic

Organic traffic is generally considered the most valuable and sought-after traffic in the SEO world, as this is traffic that’s generated through user search queries via search engines such as our benevolent overlord Google and its less popular brother, Bing.

When a user types a search term (otherwise known as a keyword) into a search engine, the search engine will return a list of relevant web results on the page – known in the industry as search engine results pages (SERPs). If a user clicks on your website’s page via SERPs, this counts towards your organic traffic.

If you’re looking to drive a steady stream of online traffic to your website, organic traffic will likely be your main focus (subject to online demand for your products or services). In order to grow your organic traffic, you need a targeted content marketing strategy (including but not limited to) optimised content to ensure your site is able to rank competitively for your self-identified core keywords.

Referral traffic

As you may have guessed, referral traffic comprises visitors who reach your site by clicking on a link from a third-party website – thus being referred from this third-party website to yours. These sites are known as referring domains or websites and feature a clickable link back to your site from their own.

This type of traffic often comes as a result of an effective content marketing strategy that focuses on building relationships with websites with a similar audience to your own in order to refer relevant traffic to your site.

Links from referring domains could include a link within a business directory listing, a press release on a news site, an affiliate website or a related industry website that writes about products or services related to your brand. 

Social traffic

Also fairly self-explanatory, social traffic includes visits from any users who land on your website by clicking on a link on a social media platform. This could be a link to your latest blog post that’s shared on Facebook or a tutorial video on Instagram. If someone clicks this link, it will direct them to your website and the visit will be classed as social traffic.

It’s also important to note that platforms like Reddit and Quora also fall within this bracket. However, there can be instances where traffic from these types of sites will fall under referral traffic if Google Analytics isn’t able to categorise these visits correctly – so it’s worth monitoring where social traffic is being tracked within your Google Analytics account if this is an area you’re looking to focus on.

Email traffic

If your brand launches regular email marketing campaigns, this is where any click-through traffic will be categorised – helping you to better track clicks and the resulting conversions.

However, there can be situations where email traffic doesn’t filter through here, particularly if you use third-party email marketing software. To prevent your email traffic from being miscategorised, you’ll need to integrate your software with Google Analytics or manually tag your links to ensure the correct UTM parameters are included in the URL. If you don’t, there’s the potential for email traffic to be classed as direct (or the dreaded ‘other’)  traffic, skewing your figures during analysis.

Paid traffic

Another rather obvious one, your paid traffic is made up of any users who click through to your site via a paid advert that appears on a search engine results page. If someone clicks through to your site from one of your paid ads in SERPs, this traffic (also known as pay-per-click or PPC traffic) will then be counted as paid traffic in Google Analytics.

With the paid traffic channel, Google Analytics allows you to delve deeper to pinpoint exactly where traffic is coming from by giving you the option to view specific campaign and keyword data.

Why is this helpful? Well, if you’re investing in PPC advertising, you’ll want to know which strategies and campaigns are performing well and which aren’t delivering a return on ad spend so you can reposition your efforts accordingly. This is particularly useful if you’re operating multiple campaigns with different commercial goals, as this channel grouping gives you the ability to gain valuable insights into bounce rates and session durations, as well as conversions relating to individual paid campaigns.

Display traffic

Similarly, display traffic is also generated through paid advertisements, but these tend to be advertisements that are clicked through via another site (as opposed to Google’s dedicated paid advertising platform, Google Ads). For example, your website might be advertised on a website that features clickable ads in the sidebar – if a user clicks on said advert, they’ll be sent to your site and filed under display traffic.

Both paid and display traffic can be incredibly useful in monitoring the success rates of your advertising campaigns, as the resulting data can help you to deduce which channels (and, on a more granular level, which individual campaigns) deliver the best conversion rates and greatest amounts of revenue.

Other traffic

For any traffic that doesn’t fall under these main categories, you’ll find it categorised under ‘other’ traffic. Beyond your annoying outliers from other channels, traffic that’s housed under this category is often determined by the UTM parameters you use – especially when you customise the UTM tags for specific URLs.

This may be the case if you want to track traffic from a certain source. You may want to customise the UTM tags you use in your URLs, resulting in the relevant traffic being filed here rather than one of the above categories.

There’s no doubt that Google Analytics is a vital tool for monitoring traffic and activity on your website, and the above guide should hopefully give you the basic understanding you need to start getting to grips with this platform’s default channel groupings.

To really optimise your website’s potential, it could be time to let the experts take the reins. At Land Digital, we thrive on analysing data and formulating digital marketing strategies that deliver meaningful results, so get in touch and find out how we can get your business well and truly on track.