“Dark social” sounds sinister and high-tech. Stealthy. Maybe even malevolent. What is this scary, villainous online activity?

Calm down. Dark social is not evil. You’ve probably done it yourself just today. But it IS hiding the source of most of your traffic. Maybe as much as 75 percent.

What is dark social, and what should you do about it?

What is dark social?

You can measure traffic that arrives to your site or page from a search on Google, a link that you posted publicly on a social network, etc. But there’s always a big bucket at the top of your source report that says “direct.”

“Direct traffic” is traffic without a referral, which means your analytics can’t tell you where a visitor comes from, the way it could if the visitor clicked a link. You might assume that, therefore, this “direct” category is only users typing in your URL unprompted. And, sometimes, that is what it means. But this bucket can also include other types of traffic that can’t be categorized elsewhere – “dark traffic.”  

“Dark search” can be included here – for instance, while Safari and Google mobile searches are tracked, the Android search app is recorded as “direct.” But “dark social,” specifically, is a term coined by Alexis Madrigal to describe online social sharing that isn’t trackable. That can mean that someone specifically typed in your URL. Far more commonly, though, it means that they clicked on a link that was shared with them in a text, email or messaging app.

That’s dark social: unmediated sharing. Communicating outside of social network posts. Essentially? Dark social is word of mouth.

What should you do?

  • Be aware. Rather than ignoring it, factor dark social into your analytics estimates. Know that you’re probably unaware of the path half of your visitors take, and leave space for that in your metrics.
  • Work with experts. Analytics specialists, in collaboration with other digital team members working on media, social and SEO, can help you identify the sources of your dark traffic.
  • Don’t get confused. Writing unpublished Facebook posts is known as “dark posts,” but this is not the same as dark social.
  • Experiment with analysis. As writer Jack Simpson points out, if you dig into your direct traffic, you can make logical assumptions. While your www.brand.com may have been a truly direct visit from someone who typed that in, www.brand.com/12345/abcdefg/long-page-title was probably a link someone clicked. You can use assumptions to better categorize and understand your dark social traffic.  
  • Encourage trackable link sharing. Help visitors share your content in ways that you can track by using social sharing buttons that are easier than cutting and pasting a URL.
  • Engage. Take non-intrusive opportunities to ask users how they found you, such as an occasional poll.
  • Write great content. This is what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? The best way to get your audience to act is to offer information that’s valuable to them.

The more you can understand your visitors, the better you can be at communicating with them – and this includes understanding the path they took to reach you. Your Intouch team can work with you to optimize your ability to understand your visitors and how they’re using your content.