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Dark Social & Dark Traffic: Shedding Light on Untraceable Visitors

Google Analytics, the beacon of truth in deciphering website traffic, occasionally throws a curveball. Amidst the labyrinth of traffic channels, a substantial 20% to 30% emerges from the shadows, labeled as ‘direct’. These enigmatic visitors arrive through a typed URL or a copied link. The question lingers: how did they stumble upon the URL, and how can you amplify this direct traffic? To demystify these queries, we venture into the realm of Dark Social & Dark Traffic.

In this comprehensive exploration, we’ll traverse the following domains:

  1. What Constitutes Dark Traffic?
  2. Decoding Dark Social
  3. Unveiling the Significance of Dark Social
  4. Calculating the Dimensions of Dark Social Traffic
  5. Mastering Dark Social Strategies

To navigate through this terrain, let’s first elucidate the terms ‘Dark Social’ and ‘Dark Traffic’.

Dark Traffic Unmasked

Imagine traffic emerging from the shadows, leaving no trace of its origin. This enigma is known as dark traffic, aptly categorized as ‘direct’ in Google Analytics. Simply put, a visitor lands on your page either by manually entering the URL or by following an untraceable link.

The Guardian’s Dark Traffic Mystery

Tanya Cordrey, Chief Digital Officer at The Guardian, once lamented that a quarter of their traffic remained shrouded in mystery. This revelation strikes terror into the hearts of companies reliant on ad revenue. In this digital age, the survival of a business can hinge on escalating traffic metrics.

How Dark Social Sharing Can Happen

The roots of this conundrum often lie in closed platforms or mobile channels. For instance, when a link is shared on Twitter or Facebook through a desktop, Google Analytics seamlessly identifies the source. However, when accessed via a mobile app, the source remains elusive, relegating it to the realm of direct traffic. If a substantial chunk of your traffic emanates from mobile, it’s conceivable that you’re not gauging the full scope of your social outreach’s return on investment.

Dark Social Sharing: A Cloaked Activity

Another avenue for direct traffic is messaging apps. When your audience disseminates your link via platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, Google Analytics loses its trail, categorizing it as direct traffic. This channel is a breeding ground for Dark Social traffic.

Unraveling Dark Social

Dark Social embodies the clandestine act of sharing content in corners of the internet where referrals and sources evade tracking. Some of the dark traffic permeating your website can be attributed to these covert exchanges.

The genesis of this concept and its nomenclature trace back to Alexis Madrigal, who chronicled his internet forays in the early 2000s. He reminisced about sharing links via the early messenger, ICQ. In the early 2010s, prevailing wisdom held that prime traffic originated from search engines and social media. Alexis harbored a suspicion that a clandestine source of traffic lurked within the data, stemming from word-of-mouth exchanges within closed platforms, among acquaintances and kindred spirits. He christened this phenomenon ‘dark social’.

The Atlantic’s Dark Social Saga

Before unveiling their article, The Atlantic conducted a thorough analysis of their website’s analytics. To their astonishment, a staggering 56.5% of their traffic was traced back to dark social sharing. Before we delve into the methods of estimating dark social traffic on your platform, let’s explore why this enigmatic traffic might just be your most coveted.

Unearthing Dark Social’s Value

At the core of valuing dark social lies an understanding of human behavior. The zenith of marketing prowess lies in the realm of word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). What sways a consumer more than a trusted recommendation? Dark social aligns more with WOMM than with conventional social media. While social media amplifies under public scrutiny, dark social resonates in private, fostering a climate of trust and openness. Nearly half of individuals harbor reservations about sharing certain content publicly, making dark social an arena of highly targeted exchanges. When someone confides content via a private message, it’s a testament to their belief in your personal engagement, even if it ventures into slightly risqué territory.

Consumer Prefer Sharing in Messaging Apps

Dominance of Dark Social: Data Speaks

Data affirms the ascendancy of dark social in the realm of sharing. Research by RadiumOne highlights that sharing on dark social channels outpaced public spaces like Facebook as early as 2016. Since July 2018, dark social referrals have eclipsed those from Facebook. It’s probable that dark traffic is already a substantial contributor to your website’s traffic.

Quantifying Dark Traffic from Dark Social

Estimating traffic from dark social requires a blend of common sense and a dive into Google Analytics. Since dark channel traffic masquerades within your direct traffic, an assumption becomes our compass. When a user lands on a deep page rather than the homepage, it’s improbable they manually entered the URL. Thus, we presume they followed an untraceable link.

Dark Social Dominates Sharing Activity

  1. Analyze the volume of direct traffic sessions over a month, approximating around 20,000 sessions or 21% of total sessions. This direct traffic mirrors the elusive dark traffic. (After all, it remains dark due to the undisclosed source.)

To Find The Amount Of Direct Traffic

  1. Create a filter excluding sessions where the user lands on your homepage. This filter, based on our earlier assumption, accounts for approximately 11,000 sessions or 15% of total sessions.

To Remove Sessions Where The User Landed On The Homepage

This analysis reveals that about 15% of your website’s sessions stem from dark social. Someone, somewhere, shared a link in the shadows of the internet, resulting in 11,000 sessions on your platform!

Unearthing the Power of Dark Social

To make the most of dark social, it’s crucial to provide content that resonates with your ardent supporters or power users, encouraging them to disseminate it through concealed channels. Understanding their preferences, sharing habits, and the platforms they frequent will be instrumental in creating content that’s tailor-made for them and their networks.

What to Share on Dark Social

A 2019 study by Global Web Index provides valuable insights into the types of content people are most inclined to share via private messaging and other dark social channels. According to the study:

What Is Being Shared Over Dark Social

While personal and humorous images hold the top spot, there’s ample room for businesses to participate. Engaging visuals, such as entertaining videos, come in a close second. For instance, capturing lighthearted moments at the office and sharing them with your most loyal customers can foster a sense of camaraderie.

Furthermore, links to websites, special offers, and other types of content also hold great potential. Even something as straightforward as curating the most popular blog posts from the previous week and forwarding them to your messaging app contacts can be remarkably effective. However, it’s essential to ensure that the content and landing pages are mobile-friendly, as 62% of clicks from dark social originate from mobile devices.

Where to Share on Dark Social

Understanding which platforms are predominantly used for dark social sharing is equally vital. Global Web Index surveyed over 3,000 internet users to unveil the following insights:

  • 82% share content on Facebook Messenger
  • 56% share content on WhatsApp
  • 34% share content through Instagram direct messaging
  • 32% share content through Snapchat messaging

To optimize the reach of your content, it’s imperative to share it directly on these platforms. Integrating share buttons within the app can facilitate effortless sharing, enabling your supporters to effortlessly distribute your content among their networks.

Strategic Sharing on Dark Social

When prioritizing the amplification of dark social sharing, understanding the return on investment becomes paramount. Employing UTM tracking for all shared links ensures you can measure the impact of your efforts accurately. Utilize tools like the Campaign URL Builder to add UTM parameters, allowing you to track link clicks with precision.

Sample Campaign for a WhatsApp Broadcast

For instance, if you’re orchestrating a WhatsApp broadcast, this meticulous tracking methodology can be invaluable in evaluating performance compared to other marketing initiatives.

Broadcasting links to your messenger contacts across various platforms, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Viber, and Kik, requires a strategic approach. Our comprehensive guide on sending newsletters via messaging apps offers detailed insights on executing this process effectively.

Additionally, incorporating private messaging share buttons within your blog posts and articles streamlines the sharing process, making it seamless for your audience to disseminate links and articles across their networks.


Mastering dark social is a pivotal strategy for businesses seeking to enhance their online presence and forge deeper connections with their most devoted supporters. By tailoring content to their preferences, leveraging the right platforms, and implementing precise tracking mechanisms, you can unlock the full potential of dark social and propel your brand to new heights of success. Embrace this hidden realm of social sharing, and watch as your content resonates with a wider audience, creating a ripple effect of engagement and brand advocacy.

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