The Rise of Dark Social

The Rise of Dark Social

What Is Dark Social

Dark social isn’t as scary as it sounds, but it can make your google Analytic reports mislabel your traffic. Learn more below.

Dark Social may sound like a scary movie or a school dance gone wrong but in this case, we’re referring to social media and its relationship with Google Analytics. Not all social traffic is presented as such in Google’s metrics. The term Dark Social was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012 and is defined as unidentified referral traffic. In layman’s terms, Dark Social is when a user shares a link by copying and pasting into another communication source, such as email, instant messages, forums, etc.

To fully understand Dark Social, you must also know what direct traffic is in Google Analytics. It is a label for traffic that arrives at a site without a referrer; meaning they are coming directly to your website. This is traditionally traffic that comes from typing a domain name into a browser, or having the website bookmarked. The user doesn’t search for the website; they come there directly.

Why Does it Matter to Me?

Nearly 70% of online referral traffic comes from dark social. However, Google Analytic’s still classifies this traffic as direct. This means while people are sharing and absorbing your content socially, it tracks it as direct traffic. That really isn’t the whole truth, as Dark Social may be causing Google to mislabel this as direct when really social or email deserves the credit.

Okay, so dark social is mislabeling your traffic in Google Analytics. Now, what exactly counts as dark social?

  • Mobile Apps – When you click a link in a mobile app the app either fires up a browser without leaving the app (like Facebook) or open a new window with the URL already in the browser (like Instagram). In both cases, the browser is registered as going directly to your site and therefore classified as direct traffic in Google Analytics.
  • Email – Say you want to share a Paint Nite event or upcoming concert schedule with one of your friends. You copy and paste the URL into an email and hit send. When your friend opens the email and clicks the link, she is brought directly to the site. Since she did not come to the site through a referrer, this is classified as direct, even though it is email.
  • Chat – In today’s web-based society Chatting can take place across a range of mediums such as mobile apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Kik or desktop based chat sites like Google Hangouts or Slack. Accessing a link shared through any one of these platforms is considered Dark Social.
  • Secure Browsing – If you’re browsing on a secure site (HTTPS:// and click over to a site without an SSL certificate (HTTP:// Google Analytic’s will wrongly neglect the secured site as a point of referral and classify this as dark social.

How Can I Spot Dark Social?

Now that you are aware that the metrics from Google Analytics may not be an accurate description of the traffic sources to your site, let’s explain a few ways we can give social sites such as Facebook the recognition they deserve in generating traffic. In addition to keeping the above traffic scenarios in mind and making educated guesses there are a few analytic tools social media marketers can use to spot instances of Dark Social. One way is to create a dark social Advanced Segment in Google Analytic’s. Learn more about advanced segments here. Another option is to set up Campaign Variables which allow you to sort traffic in Google Analytic’s by campaign source, campaign medium, and campaign name. Learn how to set up campaign variables here. Also do the following:

  • Make sure the sharing buttons on your site are easily visible to prevent the user from simply using the copy/paste feature.
  • Add a button for share by email.
  • Shorten URLs. Some URL shortener sites, such as bitly, can actually track links for you, no matter how the user arrives at your page. Also, research has shown shortened URLs are shared more and result in a higher click-through rate.

Have a question about your Google Analytics report or Dark Social? Contact Color Fire and one of our SEO experts will be happy to review your report with you.

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