If you have been using Google Analytics or any web analytics tool for any length of time, you’ve probably come to experience that your data isn’t always 100% reliable.
There are countless variables which can impact the quality of your data, and sometimes, it can be challenging to gauge what is skewing your data or why it isn’t there at all.
The reason why you want to diagnose and resolve any issues with your Google Analytics data is because there is no telling if it’s a temporary concern or if it’s causing a blind spot. Traffic data is vital to judging performance on any website, so it’s best to try and figure out what’s happening.
From time to time, our team makes some unusual discoveries. Recently, we uncovered an issue with LinkedIn referral traffic that is probably more widespread across the web than most folks realize.
If you have a suspicion that you’re missing referral traffic data from LinkedIn, there’s a good chance that you might be right.
What’s Happening – Huge Spikes in Direct Traffic
Imagine this — let’s say that you just launched a new website promoting your brand new B2B focused business blog. After only a few months, you’ve built a small but devoted audience and grown your social following.
Because your blog’s content is geared towards B2B businesses, your readers tend to spend a lot of time connecting with other professionals and consuming content on LinkedIn. After experimenting with LinkedIn’s publishing platform, you began to notice a highly positive response to your LinkedIn posts.
Despite a shift to content creation directly in LinkedIn and receiving lots of views, you begin to observe that LinkedIn isn’t getting you very much traffic.
After a while, traffic starts to pick up at a pretty consistent pace across all channels, except one in particular — direct traffic. You may get a nice ego boost at first, but the truth is that such a huge difference in traffic totals doesn’t quite add up.
As we found out for ourselves, this is happening to a ton of different websites, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it.
What We Were Noticing
The issue that we were running into was pretty consistent. Companies who are very active on social media were experiencing considerable increases in direct traffic according to Google Analytics.
At first, we thought it was just the latest round of referral spam — meaning it was just spammy bot traffic.
We then noticed a few other typical pieces of data:
- A bulk of the direct traffic was either to blog posts or home pages
- When we added “network domain” as a secondary dimension we were seeing unknow.unknown (first sign that this could be bot traffic)
- When we added service provider as a secondary dimension we were seeing Microsoft as the highest provider (the second sign that it may be bot traffic)
As our team sat down and began to dig in to the matter, we had realized that Google Analytics wasn’t reporting as much traffic from LinkedIn as we thought it would. Coupled with the fact that Microsoft owns LinkedIn, we started to wonder if there was some connection.
We analyzed every possible angle until eventually, we had an idea for a test. In real-time, we opened a LinkedIn post with links to a website we manage and Google Analytics side-by-side.
And at that moment, we had our proof. Nearly every link click was reported as a direct visit.
Why was this happening?
As it turns out, we also noticed that every link click being reported as a direct visit was pointing to an unsecured (non-HTTPS) URL. After that, it all started to make sense as we soon realized that this had something to do with encrypted URLs.
For those of you who don’t know or need a refresher on the subject, HTTPS is a particular web encryption which protects the privacy of websites and visitors so malicious third-parties can’t have access to potentially sensitive data. HTTPS is becoming widely adopted across the web and has been available to websites for many years, but this wasn’t always the case.
Many years ago, global Internet speeds were not what they are today, meaning that websites with an HTTPS encryption had extremely long load times. Along with the extra cost of obtaining an SSL certificate, the HTTP — minus the “secure” bit — was the standard for a very long time.
As user data privacy becomes a growing concern and Google has said it favors HTTPS over HTTP in search, and for Google Chrome users, more and more websites are making a move to HTTPS.
This is where LinkedIn comes in and how traffic data is getting misreported
Sharing Links on LinkedIn
As users share links on social media, it’s important to understand how HTTPS plays a role.
If someone posts a link from an HTTPS secure website like LinkedIn to a non-HTTPS site, all data from the session is removed to prevent a hacker from reading the data intended to be protected.
However, if a link from secure site links out to another HTTPS site, then the encryption is never broken. Since the encryption is never broken, the referral data of where the session came from is kept intact.
Most social media networks configure their server redirects in a way that always keeps referral data intact regardless of SSL encryption. But for some reason, this is not the case with LinkedIn. Throughout their platform, we noticed that links within profile bios, profile summaries (which open in a lightbox), or LinkedIn articles were showing up as direct visits if the link was non-HTTPS. Interestingly enough, we also noticed that URL shorteners such as Bit.ly don’t keep referral data intact either, isolated to just LinkedIn.
In most cases, websites will have a domain-wide redirect which guides users from non-secure versions of URLs to the HTTPS versions. The issue may persist for websites without an SSL encryption— but we have a few solutions.
How to Fix LinkedIn Referral Traffic Data
No one likes an incomplete picture, and there’s no reason why you should settle for insufficient data. Here a couple ways you can go about correcting this issue with LinkedIn referral traffic to give your data a bit more reliability.
For HTTPS Site Owners
For websites with an HTTPS configuration, your solution is simple — remember always to share the right versions of your links.
Going beyond LinkedIn, it’s a general SEO best practice to be consistent when posting your links anywhere on the web. If your URLs have an HTTPS configuration, make sure all external backlinks have the ‘s’ part of it. So if you’re sharing on LinkedIn, never forget to share links with HTTPS in the full URL.
This —> https://example.com
Not —> http://example.com
For Non-Secure Site Owners
For websites without an SSL encryption, there are two options, but we highly recommend you take the first:
1) Make the jump to HTTPS: It may be costly and feel time-consuming, but it will be worth it. Not only will you do your part to ensure visitors to your site don’t have their privacy compromised by fraudsters, but you are also sending an important signal to search engines for SEO purposes. HTTPS is becoming the standard and prolonging the inevitable will never help you in the long-run.
2) Add UTM parameters: This is a bit more complicated than simply making the switch to HTTPS, but this is an option as well. UTM parameters will help your Google Analytics track visits from LinkedIn more accurately when sharing tagged links with ‘source=linkedin.’ Just remember to be consistent with title casing in your UTM tagging. Otherwise, this will change how the data is reported.
No matter how you use social media, you always want to have the most accurate, reliable set of data possible. To ensure its accuracy, it’s critical that you always ask questions and be proactive in finding explanations for unusual changes in Google Analytics or any other analytics tools.
In the case of LinkedIn referral traffic becoming distorted, the best thing you can do for both your website’s SEO and traffic data is to consider making a move to HTTPS. But before you take the dive, keep in mind that going secure isn’t a simple process and requires a bit of strategy before implementation.
If you’re interested in learning how you can drive better results with search engine marketing, schedule a digital marketing consultation.