What is Dark Social and How Do You Track It?

What is Dark Social and How Do You Track It? - Sachs Marketing Group

Dark social doesn’t refer to some odd meeting of “chosen” social media professionals. It’s the term used to describe social sharing activity that can’t accurately be tracked, as it isn’t picked up by your web analytics platform. For instance, when someone shares links to your site through private messaging apps, email, or a plain old text message, those shares don’t have referral tags on them. When someone clicks one of these links, it is considered “direct” traffic. And while that’s good because traffic is traffic, the reality is it can greatly skew your Google Analytics.

So, dark social is the portion of traffic that gets thrown in to the “direct traffic” bucket in your analytics, but is the actual result of untrackable referrals. Certain native mobile apps such as Facebook and Instagram, email, messaging apps, and secure browsing (switching from HTTPS to HTTP means the referrer won’t be passed on) are the reason why dark social is an issue.


Why You Can’t Ignore Dark Social

Though the study is dated in 2014, research shows nearly 70% of all global online referrals are a result of dark social. In the UK, it’s 75%, and in North America, it’s 59%. More recent data shows the number has grown – with 84% of outbound sharing taking place through dark social, and 62% of that is from mobile devices.

What this means for your business is that a large chunk of your direct traffic isn’t really that and it’s hard to track accurately. And anything that mucks with your data could lead you to make the wrong kind of decisions for your business – so you want to get it as accurate as possible.

But, let me stop to mention the high value of this kind of traffic. If I take the time to email someone a link to a product, it’s because I know them well enough to know they’d be highly interested in something like this. I know what kinds of things they’re looking to buy, and there’s a higher than normal chance of that converting to a purchase. Dark social is essentially word-of-mouth among people who know each other.

Dark social shares help you target consumers who don’t generally share on social. Nearly half of consumers age 55 and older only share through dark social, compared to those who are ages 16 to 34, where only 19% share this way.If your business is in certain industries, particularly in travel, personal finance, or food and drink, more than 70% of social sharing is through dark social.


How to Measure Dark Social

While I’d love to be able to say that you can track all the dark social traffic your website gets – sorry guys, it’s just not true. However, there are some things you can do to track a lot of in your analytics platform.

If you want an easy solution, look at your direct traffic. If there are a lot of long links, it’s pretty safe to assume someone did not take the time to type that all in manually. The longer the link is, the harder it is to memorize anyway.

This won’t help you in learning how and where the content was originally shared, but it will help you explain to managers and CEOs where your traffic is coming from.

Use a URL shortener like Bit.ly on outbound links in your content so you can get better analysis of your engagement rates. These shorter links also look cleaner on Twitter and other social platforms. If you’re using Hootsuite to manage your social media accounts, there’s a built-in URL shortner – ow.ly. With it, you can upload images and track real-time clicks.

You can use the shortened URLs in emails or on your website to track the number of clicks those links receive.

Make sure your social share buttons are easily found, and easily distinguishable from social follow buttons on your website, so you can get a better idea of engagement.

Consider using dark social tools to track the origins of the dark social traffic and analyze the outcome.

  • ShareThis allows people to share any piece of content through text message, direct message or email. You can customize it to measure the copy and shares of the website URL.
  • io is a social media app store. Create an account on their website, or download their Shopify app or WordPress plugin. Once you’ve created your account, paste the code snippet they provide you with to the HTML head section. After it’s inserted, all it takes is a click to start tracking your dark social. Look for the “Address Bar Tracking” app. Then click “Activate” and you’re tracking your dark social, though it may take sometime for data to start coming in.
  • Po.st allows users to share content and allows publishers to get dark social analytics tools.

That’s not all you can do – you can also take the time to configure Google Analytics to measure what’s likely dark traffic. Until tracking website sharing through messaging apps becomes more conclusive and Google Analytics can add a native report, there are a few things you can do to narrow the information down.

Click “Audience > Overview.” Then, click “Add Segment” on the right. From the list, deselect the other segment options so that Direct Traffic is the only segment selected. Scroll down, and click “Apply.”

With the traffic narrowed down this far, you can narrow down a bit more to get the most likely suspects of your dark social activity. Now, go to “Behavior > Site Content > All Pages.”

At this point, you’ll get a list of all the web pages that have been accessed as direct traffic. Now, filter those out that people can remember well enough to manually type into a search bar.

Click the “Advanced” link on the right to create a new filter. Chance the first filter from “Include” to “Exclude”.

Select “Page” as the dimension. Then in the field at the end of the row, type a directory of one of your webpages that’s fairly simple, such as /about, or /contact. If you type the “/”, you’ll get a drop-down menu with suggestions you can enter. Add as many of these as you can. With the filter applied, your results will only show those harder to remember URLs, and will only show the URLs that don’t have referrer data attached to them. These URLs are more than likely a result of dark social traffic.

Another way you can try to learn more about your dark social traffic is to include an email opt-in with a freebie, only on the pages you think are popular as a result of dark social. Keep the freebie different for each page if you want to learn more about the popularity of each page, or the same if you just want an idea of your dark social popularity in general.


Don’t Let the Darkness Frighten You

While you can only narrow things down at this point, so you get a general idea of what’s going on with dark social traffic on your website, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to really see all of it. Tools can help you, and you should use them if you want to get more insights about what’s going on with your audience. Using UTM tags in Google Analytics can also help, since many people copy and paste the URLs they share.

Are you tracking dark social? If not, will you start? Tell me in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “What is Dark Social and How Do You Track It?”

  1. Hi Eric, thanks for mentioning GetSocial on this thorough article about Dark Social.

    Let us know if we can do anything for Sachs Marketing Group as we’re always looking for new partners.

    João Romão, Founder – GetSocial.io


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SEO virtuoso, CEO @Sachs Marketing Group. Focused on being of service to business owners - helping to better position them in the eyes of their audiences.

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