Dark Social & Google Analytics

Keep up with the very latest developments in the digital marketing world

By Phil Norris
on 22/5/15


What is Dark Social?

We love to share content online; to make ourselves look good, to show others the things we care about, to ooh and aah over the latest video of cute kittens, etc.

But what about when people don’t want their social networks to see what they share and do it privately?

That’s Dark Social.

Dark Social refers to any web traffic that is not attributed to a known source, such as a Google search or a social network.

This usually occurs when a link is shared via email, text message or online chat. These are methods that don’t automatically attach any tracking tags, meaning that links do not contain referrer data and will be attributed to direct traffic.

If you are not taking Dark Social into account as part of your marketing efforts, you could be missing out on a huge portion of social sharing that is occurring “behind closed doors”.


How Does Dark Social Happen?

Take this example: If I am a person who has had money problems in the past and sought help from a debt help company, and a friend asks me over a cup of coffee if I could share with him the link to the company’s website, he won’t really want me to share this via a social network.


This is a private matter. He doesn’t want this information to be accessible to just anyone who comes to his social network profile.

I’m more likely to share the link with him via an email, which he will then click on and be taken to the website.

The problem with this method is that the link which he clicked on will now be attributed to direct traffic.

Dark Social & Google Analytics


So is there a way to decode Dark Social traffic from your direct traffic, and find out exactly which sources are sending you this traffic?

Not really, but kind of. Yeah, it’s not exactly the answer you wanted, but bear with me.

The thing is, every single analytics system is affected by this anomaly in your data and there’s no real solution yet to properly track it. But you should at least be aware of it.

That being said, you can get a snapshot of Dark Social traffic by looking into your direct traffic. This is because, as mentioned above, the links people share in emails or text messages will often not contain a tracking tag, meaning they get categorised as direct traffic.

But by looking at your direct traffic you can get a feel for the links that are more likely to have occurred through Dark Social.

These are the URLs that look like no human would generally remember them, let alone type them directly into their browser.

If we consider my friend and his debt problem, he would most likely be unable to remember if I told him the link but he would find it easy enough to click on that link in an email and visit the site.

We can then get an idea of which links are most likely being attributed to direct traffic but which are more likely to have occurred due to Dark Social.

Not the most accurate method, but it’s a workaround.


What We Do To Track Dark Social


That said, one thing we've done at Return on Digital to help us track ‘Dark Social’ is set up a segment in our Google Analytics system that incorporates the parameters of new visitor, direct traffic and the exclusion of the homepage as a landing page.

Because, as mentioned above, Dark Social visitors will generally be regarded as a new visitor who arrived via direct traffic, and they will usually land on a page other than the homepage

Give it a try in your web analytics software for your website or a client’s website. It can be interesting reading depending on the industry the company operates in.

For example, you’re generally going to find more instances of Dark Social for a debt help company than you would for a document management company.


Setting Up a Segment in Google Analytics

Download our guide to setting up a dark social segment in Google Analytics to help you analyse and track the traffic.