Finding Your Dark Social Traffic (and Why It Matters)

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Approx. 6 min. read
Last updated: March 23, 2018

More than 80 percent of sharing from marketing websites happens in dark social channels, which are invisible for analytics programs. How do you manage invisible traffic?

Online content can be shared in two ways: a reader can either use a share button provided or copy and paste a link to their content onto their social media platform. From this, you can differentiate three types of social sharing: open social, closed social and dark social platforms.

Open social and closed social sharing present themselves in your analytics programs as social, “correct” traffic, but dark social does not. Dark social (not to be confused with “dark web”, where the trolls roam free) is the invisible, hidden world of social sharing we aren't able to access. As long as dark social remains a secret, we will not get a full picture of our return on investment for our social media marketing efforts.

Defining Open Social, Closed Social and Dark Social

Open social is the most basic type of sharing and its the easiest one to measure. Open social sharing means a user sharing a post in their open social platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook (but do remember, Facebook Messenger is a closed social platform). This doesn’t mean the profile itself has to be open, just the type of platform.

Closed social sharing happens in closed social platforms like Slack, email, and WhatsApp. The way it differs from dark social is that the sharing has occurred via a Share-button, preserving the metadata. This enables a website to track visitors from these social sources. Closed social platforms have started to provide the Share-button more and more, but the amount of shares coming from dark social is still twenty times higher than the shares coming from closed social.

Dark social sharing happens when someone copies a link and pastes it into a closed social channel like WhatsApp or email. During this process, the metadata within the link is lost and when the next person clicks the link, it will look like direct traffic in your analytics processor. This is when things get tricky, then, because that traffic is far from direct, as not only was it shared to a social platform, it was shared directly to the person or people receiving the link. As four out of five posts - a staggering majority - of on-site shares of publishers and marketers is now shared in dark social, it’s definitely a good idea to understand what type of content really gets the most shares amongst people.

Dark Social Traffic (2).jpg

Finding Your Dark Social Traffic

When you first start using a traffic tracking tool (such as Google Analytics), you might be thrown off by the massive relative amount of direct traffic coming to your website. The simplified view is that all of this traffic basically stems from people typing your URL into a toolbar or from people clicking a bookmarked link. These do explain some amount of your homepage visitors, but looking at specific sites and new visitors, is it really possible that so many people have written those specific URLs to their toolbar? We’d be talking about a lot of people who have a lot of time on their hands to be guessing post names and URLs. Another, slightly more likely, explanation is that this traffic stems at least partly from dark social.

If you want to get an idea of your dark social traffic but don’t want to go into downloading a separate tool for it, you can get an approximate idea of the amount in your analytics processor (in this case, Google Analytics). In Analytics, you can either exclude direct traffic from pages that make sense for direct traffic (like your homepage or pricing info) or include traffic that is likely to come from dark social sharing (these are long, complicated URLs and most likely URLs including individual blog posts, for example).

You can find your direct traffic by choosing Audience Overview and adding a Direct Traffic Segment as a new segment.

Google Analytics audience overview

Google Analytics direct traffic

Click Apply (the blue little box on the left) and then go to Behaviour, Site Content, and to All Pages.

Google Analytics site content behaviour

On the right lower corner, choose Advanced filter (the little box in the right corner). Choose Page as the primary dimension. You can now either include or exclude pages containing a specific word. You can exclude the simplest web pages we can assume your visitor can come up with by themselves (such as awesomecompany.com/contact). You can also exclude URLs suggested by the user's toolbar because of a previous visit or the popularity of that page (such as awesomecompany.com/features). Exclude links people aren’t necessarily sending each other between cat photos in WhatsApp (like awsomecompany.com/boring-pricing-information-not-relevant-to-you) as well.

Another way to approach this is to include all traffic containing a specific word. Let’s say you have a blog, and your URL contains the term “blog” (or “insights” or “cool-stuff”, whatever rocks your boat). In this case, you can filter your results to show all pages including this term, that is to say, all blog posts. This is a good way to study and identify your likely dark social traffic if your website architecture allows it. It's also smart if you have a lot of additional pages with different terms and excluding all of them would take too long.

Once you’ve made your choices, click Apply, and a view becomes visible to you. Tada!

Google Analytics primary and secondary dimensions

You can study the pages and compare them to your all-around-successes and you could find some interesting, in-depth information about what it is people share to each other directly. Remember this isn’t a 100 percent accurate, but while it isn’t a fool-proof method of measuring, you can still find valuable data especially about your most engaging content.

Finding your dark social shares is an incredibly useful way to gather data about the content your users find most valuable. When a link is copied and pasted directly to a person or group of people who may find it useful, the subject and content have been pre-approved by someone to be useful, interesting or very, very funny. Regardless, the bar to click the link is minimal and the engagement which can follow is already deeper than if the link would have been clicked on in open social platforms. This is because the content has been personally suggested to the reader by someone they know. And that is the kind of golden content you want to keep providing.

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