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What is Dark Social and How Does It Affect Analytics Data?

by | Jun 15, 2016 | SEO, Social Media |

If you have ever done SEO yourself, or hired an SEO company, then you probably know just how important analytics reports are to the powers that be. Strictly speaking, analytics reports show us the kind of parameters we need to determine a definitive course of action. For example, if you find that most of your converted traffic is coming from your Facebook page, then why not focus more of your resources on building that page and effectively increasing the traffic and conversions? It is that simple. Until you throw dark social into the mix.

So What Exactly Is Dark Social?

Have you ever taken a look at your websites analytics report and seen a huge chunk of traffic falling under ‘direct traffic’ and wondered how that can be? It is a little inconceivable to assume that that many people are actually taking the time to type in the entire web address including the https://www….bit and so on. Frankly speaking, most people can’t even do that correctly. Actually, almost no one does. But there it is, the report is telling you that your site is getting that much direct traffic. You will not be surprised to learn that this traffic comes from dark social.

Dark Social Traffic Analytics

Any of these channels can have traffic from dark social.

Sticking with the traffic from Facebook analogy, when someone clicks a link that you have placed on such an open social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on), your analytics tools will tell you from where exactly that click or referral came. You can actually track it and see that it came from such and such social media platform. That is how you can tell the quality of referral you are getting from any given platform and know just how much effort to focus on that based on the returns.

Mobile Apps Are Affecting Dark Traffic

Nowadays, however, with the invention of several private messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and even SMS, people are sharing more and more links through these avenues instead of tagging their friends on Facebook. After all, it is often much easier to copy/paste a link that you know a friend would like into your private message sessions on WhatsApp. That is, after all, the most popular avenue of communication between the two of you.

When your friend clicks on this link, even though it is a referral from you, the analytics tools will not register you as the referral source. They will register this click as direct traffic. Meaning your friend went to the browser search page and actually typed in the entire address as is into the box. Typical human behavior tells us that that does not happen, at least not that often. But the bots can’t know that. So to them, the traffic qualifies as direct and that is exactly what will show on your report.

Why Is Dark Social Traffic a Problem?

The truth is that dark traffic isn’t a problem per see. It is just difficult to account for and that makes it inconvenient. The whole idea behind analytics tools is that they can help monitor websites and how they rank in the World Wide Web as a whole. Leading search engines such as Google like to know and verify that you are following ethical ranking tenets and that you are actually providing their clients with the value they deserve and as such are rewarded with higher search engine ranking. The better and more useful your content the more it is shared online and so forth.

Dark Social TrafficDark traffic presents a loop hole of sorts. Even though your traffic may be highly useful, that is probably why it is being shared in the first place, search engines can’t exactly document the path through which it takes to the end user. Your sharing a link to a recipe that you know your girlfriend would love means that the recipe shared is useful, but the path towards how that recipe got to your friend ends with you. At least as far as the analytics tools are concerned. According to the reports, your girlfriend simply typed in that web address out of thin air.

To the website owner, this is not that much of a problem. After all, they benefit from the traffic. But as mentioned earlier, it becomes problematic as far as reporting is concerned. Without knowing from where that referral came, the website owner wouldn’t know on which platforms to focus his or her marketing energy for maximum returns. Which in effect, renders analytics reporting tools ineffective to some extent.


Why Does Dark Social Traffic Matter?

Dark traffic wouldn’t really matter if it wasn’t such a huge chunk of online traffic. Today, some of the channels that are responsible for a huge bulk of dark traffic include:

  • Some native mobile apps such as Facebook, Instagram, etc.
  • Email – referrers are not passed on to protect users’ privacy.- Popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and so on.
  • Secure browsing – Clicking from HTTPS to HTTP ensures that the referrer is not passed on.

As you can see, these are some of the most widely used communication channels today. As of 2014, the amount of dark traffic online stood at 70% of all online referrals (75% in the UK). That was two years ago. Imagine how big that chunk is today?

This means that up to 75% of all online referrals cannot be effectively traced. If you do not know where all this traffic is coming from, how would you know what to do in order to maximize it? For all you know, you could be busy optimizing the wrong thing.

Are There Advantages Of Dark Traffic?

Dark social traffic does, however, have one major advantage. It converts! Think about it, what are the chances you will share something with a friend (who you know well) that they do not like? People buy things mostly thanks to word-of-mouth advertising from other people that they trust. Dark social is effectively the most useful word-of-mouth advertising avenue of this digital age.

What Can You Do About It?

As things stand, nothing really. But as it grows and grows, you can rest assured that the leading search engines will come up with parameters through which this kind of traffic can be measured and even contained.

Anything that puts a cloud on your data might not be very welcome, as much as it can be useful. For now, the best you can do is to try and minimize dark traffic avenues by making it easier to share your content through conventional means. After all, who would go through the trouble of copy pasting a link if they can just click a share button and do the same thing effectively?