What is Dark Social Media?

There's something lurking under the surface in your analytics, just out of reach. When you move toward it it pulls away, sending ripples through your data.

It's dark social, and it's not as ominous as it sounds - it's website traffic that's mislabeled in Google Analytics. 

What is Dark Social?

The term dark social was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic, who was searching for an explanation for where direct traffic was really coming from. Under conventional logic, website traffic that isn't tracked from a social media post, blog post, online ad, or other clear source but still shows up at your doorstep is "direct." In other words, as far as Google Analytics is concerned, these visitors are directly typing in your URL to get to your site.

Alexis - who grew up in the early days of web...like several of us at BizzyWeb - didn't buy this explanation. He remembered the days of AIM and forums where the way to share content was just by sending a link directly to a friend.

Under Web 2.0 logic, once social media sites rose to prominence people were posting links publicly on their profiles or sharing directly from websites, which leaves a clear source for traffic.

But Alexis questioned: is that really all there is to it? That every share was public? 

We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.

Following that logic, Alexis identified the source, which he dubbed dark social:

This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as "direct" or "typed/bookmarked" traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that's not actually what's happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.

In other words, dark social is link sharing that exists outside of the public perception, but is still "shared" traffic. It's anything that's not traditionally tracked by analytics tools, like:

  • Texting someone a link
  • Sharing a link to a groupchat or direct message on a social site (Facebook messenger, Twitter DMs, etc.)
  • Sharing a link via a communication tool or app (GChat, Discord, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.)
  • Personal emails - emails your audience send to each other instead of emails from you

It might seem like these one-to-one shares are so small they aren't worth chasing down - but that's not what the data shows. Alexis found that 56.5% of The Atlantic's social traffic was coming from dark social.

Is Dark Social Relevant to Your Brand?

Every business is different. It's easy to see why an information-based brand like The Atlantic might see a lot of dark social traffic. But will this be the case for every business?

A good place to start is by digging into your analytics - if you notice a huge chunk of direct traffic or unattributed traffic, it might be worth digging into. Another reason to track is if having that attribution is important - in other words, if you have a CEO that's constantly questioning if your social media is "worth it," having data to show these one-to-one shares is a benefit.

How to track dark social

Dark social by nature is untrackable, which creates the entire paradox of dark social. However, there are still some ways you can track this activity.

The easiest way - but the priciest - is to use a tool that does this for you. GetSocial is a tool that offers this service. Going this route takes out a lot of the heavy lifting required.

Otherwise, you can start to get really granular in Google Analytics. Here are the steps we recommend (or pass this along to your SEO team):

  1. Create a new view in Audience Overview by adding a Direct Traffic Segment, then go to Site Content > All Pages.
  2. Exclude pages where direct traffic makes sense - like your homepage or any other simple URLs that just logically make sense for users to remember (like "/login").
  3. OR Instead, focus on complex, long URLs like blog pages. This requires manually adding them in, but you may have a place to start by including your most popular blogs.

Tracking dark social activity gives you a clearer picture of how users are engaging with your site, and what content they are sharing. Ultimately, having dark social traffic is a good thing - it shows that people like the content you're putting out. Now you just have to find them.

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BizzyWeb is a Minneapolis-based digital marketing and web design agency that helps companies get the high-quality leads they need to grow and thrive. Our tactics include inbound marketing, SEO, advertising, web design, content creation and sales automation. We are an accredited HubSpot Platinum Partner and we offer full-service HubSpot onboarding, enablement and strategy for new and current users.