Shedding Some Light On Dark Social – What It Is And Why You Should Care

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Whether or not you’re familiar with the term “dark social traffic,” you’ve likely committed an act of “dark social” sharing before—probably multiple times (it’s not as ominous as it sounds, I promise).

Have you ever found an interesting article online that you wanted to share with your partner or a specific friend and then either emailed or texted the link to that article to that particular person?

If you have, then you’ve just engaged with dark social.
Sometimes, the content you share is intended for only one person’s eyes and not your entire social network. We all do it and pretty frequently, too. In fact, “dark social has been reported to be responsible for up to 60% of overall referral traffic for various websites,” says Olsy Sorokina of CBC.

So what’s the deal with dark social and how can you measure its impact?

What Is Dark Social?

According to Techopedia, “Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured.”

Referral traffic typically attaches identifying tracker “tags” to links whenever they are shared. Dark social traffic, on the other hand, does not possess any referrer data.

direct traffic

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And if you’ve ever used a web analytics tool to investigate a traffic source report, then you’ve probably noticed a large segment of “direct” traffic and wondered what it was referring to, seeing as it’s pretty unlikely for that many people to access your content by typing in the page’s entire url—from its http:// start, to its .com finish, and all of the dashes and slashes in between.

Well, a large portion of that direct traffic is probably coming from dark social sources, as described below by Brewster Stanislaw of Simply Measured.

1. Native Mobile Apps. Mobile apps either fire up a browser instance in-app (like Facebook) or force safari/chrome to open a new browser window (like Instagram) with the URL in question in the browser. In both cases, the browser itself is going to directly to the site and thus it looks like direct traffic when viewed in GA.

2. Email. Most email providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook don’t pass a referrer when a user clicks the link to protect privacy and security for that user.

3. Chat. This can be in the form of chat-based native mobile apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat or web/desktop based chat like Google Hangouts, IRC, or Slack. Chat clients of all kinds do not pass referrers either!”

facebook links

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Why Dark Social Matters And How To Measure It

To optimize your marketing efforts, it’s important to ascertain where the majority of your traffic is coming from, and if a significant percentage of people are arriving via dark social, then you need to be aware of that. Additionally, “Clickback rates, or the number of times someone clicked on the link you shared, are very high on messaging shared via dark social means,” reports Olsy Sorokina.

Measuring dark social traffic is a bit tricky, however, especially when it occurs over email or instant messaging, both of which necessitate a highly nuanced approach.

Even still, “Don’t be afraid of the dark!” says Brewster Stanislaw. “A good first start is appending UTM parameters to the share buttons on your site i.e. &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=facebook.”
You can also use Google Analytics to ballpark your dark social traffic.

Tom TunguzTom Tunguz of Redpoint Ventures“To create a filter for dark social traffic,

  1. Log into Google Analytics and click on the Advanced Segment button.
  2. Create a new segment called Dark Social that excludes the landing page that exactly matches “/” and the Source contains (direct)…

…To view more help on Advanced Segments click here.

This Advanced Segment will track all the visitors who arrived at your site with click to deep-link without ever visiting the home page: Dark Social traffic.”

And as a final suggestion, shorten the URLs of  the outbound links in your content “to get a deeper analysis of the engagement rates.”

Measuring dark social traffic isn’t easy, but with some ingenuity, it can be done.

What do you think about dark social traffic? Are you familiar with the term? How important is it to track?