Dark social represents traffic which originates from the share of a URL but appears marked as direct traffic in analytics tool. Direct traffic is a label used for traffic which arrives at a site without a referrer. The referrer is the URL that a user has recently visited before clicking on the page in question. Nowadays, there are plenty of methods a visitor can land on a site without directly accessing it.
One of those methods is via native mobile apps. Usually, mobile apps can trigger a browser instance in-app. Furthermore, they can also force an Internet browser to open a new browser window with the URL in question in the browser. In both cases, the browser will direct you to the site. Hence, it will appear as direct traffic in GA.
What is dark social
Another way you can arrive on a site is via email. Many email providers like Outlook, Yahoo, and Gmail do not pass a referrer when a visitor clicks the link to protect security and privacy for them. Chat mobile apps can also trigger a visitor to land on a site. The list of such apps includes WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or even desktop-based chat like Slack, IRC, and Google Hangouts. Furthermore, chat clients do not pass referrers either.
These three channels are responsible for dark social. However, the most important thing is that most direct traffic is not even direct. In case you measure your web traffic via standards web analytics, you might miss important insights about how people actually discover your products and content.
Why does this matter
The programmatic ad buying platform RadiumOne indicates that over 70% of social shares are dark. Some of the examples include you texting a friend about a concert you want to attend, or a group of friends might share content about an event on a group email chain. Another example could be a friend sending you pictures on WhatsApp about the shoes she intends to buy.
Hence, a big chunk of referral traffic is pretty hard to track accurately. Dark social puts a cloud on your data, and this cannot be good. In case you do not have the full picture, you might waste your energy and time on optimizing the wrong data. Nevertheless, you have to consider the value of this kind of traffic. Dark social traffic can become extremely valuable.
This is effectively word-of-mouth among people who know about each others’ needs. No one can fully track dark social traffic. However, you might narrow things down. When your analytics platform reveals some long links when you look at your direct traffic, it is likely that no one typed it in manually.
After all, dark social traffic is very useful since it presupposes communication via private messages among friends and family. When you know each other well, and you learn what your needs are, you might talk about some brands, events, and concerts. Hence, this turns into dark social which is hard to keep tabs on.