What is ‘Dark Social’ and why it’s important to take it into consideration

Anastasia Kurmakaeva

Written by Anastasia Kurmakaeva

The so-called Dark Social is a type of traffic, the origin of which is unclear, because most of the time, these visits to our website come from instant messaging apps, chat clients, e-mails, private messages in social media, and other similar channels, in addition to HTTPS websites. Traffic measuring systems usually register this as direct traffic. And what is direct traffic? Visits arriving on our website without an identified referral, because in the case of dark social it’s very hard to really see where exactly these URLs are being linked from, because they are usually untraceable links, due to the absence of meta data, which would appear in other circumstances.

We all take part in contributing to dark social traffic on a daily basis, and we’ve been doing so for quite some time, though perhaps without even realising it. We share content with our friends and loved ones over WhatsApp, Telegram, direct messages on Twitter or Instagram, Snapchat, or even e-mail when we cannot access to a more direct communication method (for example, when we’re at work). Each of these cases, and many others we don’t mention here are considered dark social, a relatively novel term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, an editor from The Atlantic, in one of their articles in 2012.

Have you ever shared a link to an article published on the Internet you thought was interesting, via e-mail or WhatsApp? Sure you have, and that means you’re also part of Dark Social.

We all take part in dark social 🖤in our daily lives, because we share content through instant messaging or e-mail, which cannot be traced.Click To Tweet

According to the data of the study published by RadiumOne in 2016, dark social traffic comprises a whopping 84% of all visits coming from social sharing channels globally.

Dark social chart 2016

#DarkSocial traffic comprises a whopping 84% of all visits coming from social sharing channels globally.Click To Tweet

If we go back to analyse the same study made in 2014, dark social traffic was 69%, which clearly indicates that this type of traffic is growing, and it’s likely that today, two years later, it’s even higher.

The fact that dark social comes predominantly –not exclusively, though– from mobile devices, means we actually cannot continue to blatantly ignore it, and it’s time to make the most of its potential in our marketing strategies aiming to connect to our target audience.

How to track dark social traffic

While yes, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to measure all traffic considered to be dark social, here are some tricks we can use to identify it at least partially.

utm parameters

Start by adding utm parameters to sharing buttons on your website. For example:

social sharing buttons

  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=facebook
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=twitter
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=pinterest
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=whatsapp
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=linkedin
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=telegram
  • &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=snapchat
  • etc.

While utm parameters are far from being able to cover all visits qualifying as dark social we can possible get, it’s a good start to identify some of them. This is especially true for private instant messaging apps, because shares made via tweets or wall posts on Facebook can be measured using common analytic platforms.

If your website doesn’t have those buttons put in place, it is the ideal moment to do it. Make them visible, so that users are more inclined to click on them when sharing your content, as opposed to the common practice of copy-pasting the link from the address bar. Besides, this way we will also contribute to improving user experience, as we will put at their disposal an easier and faster method to share content from our website, directly through the app of their choice.

In Google Analytics

When we filter our data to see direct traffic only in Google Analytics, we’ll find:

  • On one hand, short and easy to remember URLs, like the home page, a category or second-level page. For example: https://www.humanlevel.com/en or https://www.humanlevel.com/en/sem.html.
  • On the other, longer URLs usually belonging to blog content or similar. For example: https://www.humanlevel.com/en/social-media/7-most-popular-social-networking-sites-in-russia.html

What is happening here? In the first example, a user could easily have remembered and then typed this address in their browser. In the second example, however, that’s less likely. You can remember such a long address as easily, hence they either 1) saved it in their favourites to see it later or 2) they arrived at this post through a link shared over any of the channels we’ve previously identified as a dark social source.

Direct traffic in Google Analytics

Being aware of this allows us to extract a rough estimate of how many dark social visits we receive.

If we want to be more thorough in our traffic measurement, we can create a customised segment, in which we will include visits to URLs with utm parameters, and direct visits to URLs which are less likely candidates to be manually entered into the address bar. To do this, we can go to the segments in Analytics and click on the “New segment” button.

How to create a new segment in Analytics

There we will define the segmentation characteristics we see fit to filter users and sessions, by traffic sources –in this case we are interested in direct traffic– as well as any other conditions, behaviour, etc. We can even exclude URLs easier to remember, for example. The important thing is to find the key aspects that will make it work, to extract the traffic we want more accurately.

New segment traffic sources

It’s important to note that this will only give us an approximation of the dark social traffic we are getting, but today there still isn’t a sure fire way to measure it 100%. We’ll just have to roll with what we have, and act upon the data we’ve been able to collect, which should help us to get an idea of the importance this type of sessions have for our business or website.

Nowadays, there isn't a method with a 100% proven efficacy to measure dark social traffic 📏🧛‍♂️, but we can use some tricks to do it, like URL with parameters or custom segments.Click To Tweet

To summarise…

Considering that use of mobile devices to browse the Internet is going strong and ever-increasing among the entire population, Dark Social can only go on growing. For that reason, it’s time to study how we can make the most out of its advantages and apply it in our strategies.

Autor: Anastasia
International SEO consultant and translator at the Human Level online marketing agency.

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