What is ‘dark social’ and why should I care?

‘Dark social’ is a term that has been doing the rounds and was featured in October by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic in his article ‘Dark Social: We have the whole history of the web wrong’. Getting straight to the point of all this, read on.

What is ‘dark social’?

The term is now being used to refer to web traffic that comes from outside sources that web analytics are not able to track. This happens when someone shares a link by copying and pasting a URL into instant messages, emails, forums or local hub sites. Your analytics can also get confused when people are moving from a secure site (https://) to a non-secure site (http://).

These sources can be characterised as ‘social traffic’, although this may not be what your analytics is telling you. Instead your analytics could be showing you that 30-50% of your website visits are coming via direct traffic.

Direct traffic refers to the amount of people accessing your site by either entering in the site address manually or having your site saved in their bookmarks.

However, it is more likely that they are receiving a link from someone via and outside source mentioned previously that is not recognised by most analytics programs, and UX shows us fewer people type in the URL of sub landing pages.

What does this mean?

Your analytics could be telling you the wrong thing. Alexis Madrigal went to http://www.Chartbeat.com (a real-time data analytic firm) and asked them to run aggregate numbers across The Atlantic site.

Chartbeat took visitors who showed up without referrer data and split them into two categories.

The first was people who were going to a homepage (theatlantic.com) or a subject-landing page (theatlantic.com/politics).

The second was people going to any other page. These people, they figured, were following some sort of link because no one actually types “http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/atlast-the-gargantuan-telescope-designed-to-find-life-on-other-planets/263409/.

They started counting these people as what they call direct social. Chartbeat found 56.5% of traffic was accountable from dark social.


According to Alexis Madrigal, dark social is even more important across this broader set of sites. Almost 69% of social referrals from The Atlantic website were dark. The added importance of analysing this is in understanding how your content is being shared and your contextual relevance within social network sharing.

What can I do about dark social?

One way to analyse dark social numbers is to start tracking URLs rather than their click ending up in the direct traffic area of your analytics. Another way to track your dark social number is by creating a filter on Google Analytics – via http://tomtunguz.com/

To create a filter for dark social traffic:

1. Log into Google Analytics and click on the Advanced Segment button.

2. Create a new segment called Dark Social that excludes the landing page that exactly matches “/” and the Source contains (direct).

This Advanced Segment will track all the visitors who arrived at your site with click to deep link without ever visiting the home page.

Fi Bendall is the managing director of digital and interactive consultancy company Bendalls Group. With over 20 years’ experience, Bendall has worked with global brands including BBC and Virgin, and is an expert in how businesses can approach strategy in the digital world. You can follow her on Twitter at @FiBendall, and can contact her through Bendalls Group.



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