What is Dark Social?

dark social is what

The term “dark social” always sounds vaguely ominous. Every once in a while it surfaces in the blogosphere and causes collective bouts of worry and hand wringing. Afterwards, we all go back to thinking about other things, further adding to dark social’s mystique as unapproachable and unknowable.

Dark social is defined by Techopedia as, “…the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs…” Simple, right? 

But what does that really mean?

When you look at your web analytics tool you will probably see a big, formless chunk of web traffic that comes in without a “referrer”. A referrer is the tag that any traffic from a desktop app - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - or a site like Google search arrives with. Referrers allow your tool to categorize incoming traffic and that process lets you map the marketing activities that drive traffic to your site.

Your analytics tool will probably call that chunk of unidentified traffic “direct traffic”, a quaint term from a simpler time when people used to type in URLs to reach websites. Of course, a small part of this big bucket is truly direct traffic. Like when your grandmother pulls out your business card and wants to see what you’ve been up to lately.

The remaining traffic is what we loosely call dark social. The term dark social was coined in 2012 when Alexis Madrigal wrote a seminal article for The Atlantic commenting on the vast amount of person-to-person social web activity that predated social media. He maintained that web analytics was underestimating the enduring importance of this force…and he was (still is) right.

In 2016, this category of under or unmeasured dark social traffic remains large and consists mostly of the following;

  • Native Mobile Apps – Unlike desktop versions, mobile apps often use in-app browsers or new windows to enter a site. Either way, this traffic comes in as direct rather than referred. An increase in mobile app use has actually made the dark social problem even bigger in recent years.
  • Email - Most email-providers protect privacy and security by blinding where in-mail traffic comes from.
  • Chat - For similar security reasons chat clients of all kinds do not pass on referrers. This is a really big deal because use of native mobile apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and web/desktop-based chat like Google Hangouts, IRC, and Slack is steadily increasing.
  • Secure Browsing - If a web user is utilizing HTTP browsing for more privacy and security, a referrer won’t be passed.
  • Organic Search - In some browser configurations, Google won’t pass a referrer when a user clicks a link from an organic search.

Some industry wonks define dark social as the first three categories, other use all five and more. In any case, you get the point. People still like to share certain types of information one-to-one versus one-to-many and that kind of sharing is mucking up your precious analytics with dark social.

Why should I care?

That pile of uncategorized, referrer-less stuff can represent as much as 70% of some sites’ traffic. That’s a lot of mysterious data. In most areas of our life (possibly excluding the romantic) we would never tolerate so much ambiguity. For example, we would never use sales funnel numbers that leave us confused about the origin of 70% of the leads. Ever.

Plus, the type of traffic driven by dark social is very, very valuable. People tend to share one-to-one with close colleagues, friends and family. Think about it…the link to an article that relates to yesterday’s meeting topic, that new restaurant you want to try tonight, the back to school sale you want your teen to shop from. How, when and why a user shares with their intimate network is some of the most coveted real-estate in web analytics …and we are all mostly missing it.

Ok, but what can I do about it?

Stay tuned. This article is one in a two-part series. In the next segment I will explore the creative, funky and sometimes desperate solutions that people have come up with to address the issue of dark social. In the meantime, try not to be afraid of the dark.