By Matthew Klein

January 21st, 2015

The term dark social first popped up in 2012, a point at which people were really beginning to understand how much traffic social media was sending to outside websites.

It was coined by the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal as a catchall for the significant portion of incoming web traffic whose source couldn’t be tracked. (On a sidenote, it wasn’t meant to sound sinister—the operating metaphor is dark energy, the unseen energy accelerating the universe’s expansion.) With more or less any analytics tool, most sites can see incoming visitor stats for categories like social, organic search, paid search paid social and referrals. 

But often, one of or even the biggest source of traffic is filed under ”direct.” This traffic is not necessarily, as the name suggests, primarily made up of people typing URLs into their browsers. Instead (at least according to Madrigal) it’s mostly traffic that comes from people sharing links to your site, but in ways that are not measured by analytics tools. It’s links that are being shared on channels like email and chat apps, or via social networks like Facebook in a way that’s not trackable.

For example, right now, Google Analytics considers around a third of Falcon Social’s incoming traffic to be direct. This is not necessarily accurate. A portion of this traffic is most likely social, it’s just not clear from where.

What’s so interesting about all this, besides the fact that everyone loves a good mystery? Well, it’s extremely important for brands to know what sources their traffic is coming from if they want to increase it (as well as leads and conversions).

A major source of traffic

Chartbeat provides analytics to brands that are very serious about tracking referrals and traffic, especially media companies. In an excellent breakdown of the state of dark social, they said that almost 1/3 of the incoming traffic across its network is from dark social.

On mobile, this proportion climbed significantly higher; it was estimated that roughly 50% of traffic was unattributable, and was most likely dark social.

Even if we don’t know exactly where this traffic’s coming from, it’s substantial. Substantial enough that brands, though they can’t track it precisely, need to try to understand it as much as possible, in order to optimize to increase it if possible.

Dark Social

A couple of clues

How can you adjust your content to increase referrals from unknown sources? Well, luckily, dark social is not quite as black a box as the name suggests.

In fact, that Chartbeat post, as well as another post by Alexis Madrigal have made some interesting findings. It seems that a significant portion of the referrals that are counted as direct traffic are in fact coming from Facebook and other social sources, including Reddit, but are for various reasons, not possible to track.

While it might seem unlikely that it’s that difficult to measure traffic from Facebook, there are a number of good reasons why it can prove a challenge, even in 2015.

When people access the Facebook mobile app, links clicked sometimes indicate the source of the traffic, but they often don’t. It’s been argued that for many, traffic from the Facebook mobile app comprises the majority of dark social.

The mobile app from Reddit, with its tendency to drive a major amount of traffic when stories get popular, has also, in some tests, proven to be a major source of dark social.

Beyond those sources, any traffic that is passing from a https address to an http address will not include any attribution information; it’s the same for links opened in a new tab.

What to do about it

Dark social means underreporting of traffic coming from social, which also means potentially underestimating the impact of your social content and your teams.

This effect makes it even more important to track your social content either with networks’ tools or via the analytics integrated in a platform like Falcon Social to give you a clear picture of its effectiveness.

Another related issue is that some analytics tools can have trouble categorizing incoming traffic as “social,” especially if your campaigns are not tagged or tracking parameters have not been fully set up. Doing so can help you get a clearer picture of the effects of your social campaigns.

And if these leads about the provenance of dark social are true, and a lot of it is coming from Facebook, what can be done to optimize your content and increase traffic?

Well, do what you can to create great stuff. Knowing your audience on Facebook, as well as the target audience you would like to reach there will help you to create content that they find relevant, engaging and shareable. (For a look at how to set up a content marketing strategy that will help you produce interesting content, download our handbook.)

Content should also take into account Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, which has undergone some recent changes, in order to increase organic reach and by extension referrals. 

The good news is that, most likely, this issue is on its way towards getting resolved. Facebook is aware that not all of the traffic driven from its mobile app is counted, and it is working on rectifying it.

Even if this specific problem gets resolved, the issue will probably be around forever—technologies emerge, traffic comes from new sources, tracking gets more and more complicated, and measurement tools scurry to catch up. It’s important to understand where that traffic comes from if you want it to grow. But, in the absence of perfect data, you use the best available, and you do all you can to create content that resonates enough to engage, on any channel.

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