One of the things we love to do as a team here at MHC is solve difficult SEO mystery cases. While we usually are pretty good at determining why a site’s traffic has dropped, every now and then a case stumps us. This is one of those cases. I thought it would be great to write a post on this, as we had the permission of the site owner to do so, and see if some of the amazingly smart people in the SEO community (hint...that means you) can figure it out!

Can you help solve this? In appreciation of your help, we’re going to give away a one year paid membership to Search News You Can Use to the person who gives us the most valuable tip that helps us figure this out!

I was recently contacted by Richard Hughes from Careers in Music. He asked if we could help figure out an unusual traffic drop mystery. The odd thing though, is that the drop he was seeing was in direct traffic. Here is the direct traffic to this site:

That’s a pretty big drop!

Before we get into the nitty gritty details, here is a summary of the problems that this site is seeing:

  • A massive drop in traffic classified as direct starting on May 27, 2018.
  • A big increase in traffic classified as organic search traffic starting on May 28, 2018.
  • An overall drop in rankings and traffic from this point on.

What is direct traffic?

While many people think that direct traffic consists of only visitors who typed your url into their browser bar, this is not true. Direct traffic is any traffic that Google Analytics cannot figure out where to place elsewhere.

Here are some common reasons for traffic to be classified as direct:

  • The user typed the url into the search bar.
  • Someone arrived at the site by using a bookmark.
  • A meta refresh or javascript redirect was used to get to a page.
  • A visitor clicked on a link from an https page that points to an http page. Unless the https page is using a meta referrer tag, then this traffic, rather than being shown as referrer traffic will now be called direct.

There are other reasons too such as clicking on an untracked link in an email or dark social links. The main point though, is that when GA cannot figure out how to classify a source of traffic they’ll call it direct.

Organic traffic boost

We saw that direct traffic dropped for this site starting on May 28, 2018. Coincidentally, traffic from organic search increased:

They also saw a temporary spike in social traffic:

There was no obvious change at this time in referral traffic:

So, was all of this loss in direct traffic just shifted over to the organic and social buckets? This does not appear to be the case as overall traffic numbers started to decline on May 28 and are continuing on a downward slide:

Some other interesting stats

It is interesting to see that on May 28, 2018, when this change happened, analytics is reporting a big increase in Google organic traffic and Yahoo! organic, but not Bing:

Google organic:

Yahoo organic:

Bing organic:

The changes in direct and organic traffic were consistent across both desktop and mobile. Also, it seems that all pages on the site saw drops including the following.

The home page:
Category pages:

Survey pages. (This site gets conversions by having people complete a survey.):

Blog pages saw a drop in direct traffic without the coincidental boost in organic. However, there is not nearly as much volume of traffic on these pages so it’s hard to draw conclusions here:

GSC Data

Search Console is showing that impressions, clicks, CTR and rankings started decreasing around May 27-28 as well:

We checked several different pages and queries and the drop seems like it is across the entire site.

GDPR Connection?

One thing that we considered is that May 25, 2018, just a few days before the drop, was the date on which GDPR went live. We had wondered if perhaps the site’s cookie notification bar was related to the problem. However, their developer informed us that this bar went live in June, so this is not likely to be the issue.

I do think it is conceivably possible that the issue has something to do with how Google Analytics tracks users. But, I just can’t see how GDPR tracking in GA could cause this site to be seeing a big loss in direct traffic, a gain in organic and an overall drop in sessions altogether. Also, if this was a common GA issue, we would be hearing of many other similar cases.

Some other information about conversions

One of the tricky things about this site is that users are encouraged to take a survey which generates leads for the site. Users who do this are taken off of the site to SurveyGizmo and then return back to a subdirectory ( We had wondered if perhaps SurveyGizmo had made some changes in how they track users (in connection to GDPR) that possibly stripped out personally identifiable data and caused people who were coming back to the site to be misclassified by GA. However, this doesn’t make sense as we would expect to see an increase in direct visits if this were happen, rather than the drastic decrease that we saw.

What do you think?

It’s not common for me to write a post like this. We do a lot of site assessments and usually can figure this type of issue out within a couple of hours. I decided to write this because Richard gave us permission to do so, and also because I think that finding the answer could be beneficial to many people.

Do you have any ideas on what is going on? Once we get the answer I’ll update the article. But for now, I’d love for you to leave a comment below. Again, we’ll give a free year’s subscription to my newsletter (normally $18 per month) to the person who gives the most helpful answer to solve this.

Did you know that the MHC team is participating in a contest to try and rank for the term “Wix SEO”? It has been fun!