Dark Social: Why you can’t track your most important website traffic

Dark social

If you’re in the business of personal finance, food and drink, travel, or executive search, then ‘dark social’ accounts for more than 70% of your social sharing (RadiumOne).


Have I got your attention on this dark social thing?    🙂

Digital media and advertising is often championed above other types of more traditional marketing because it is so trackable.  By that, I mean that every click, view, impression and otherwise can be tracked and reported on.

This therefore makes it very attractive to the modern-day marketer – it means we can report to our Management team or Board on where our spend is going, and what sort of return on investment we are seeing.

But what if I was to tell you that three quarters of where the highest value audiences were getting their brand and product information was not visible, trackable or traceable?

This is what the industry is referring to as Dark Social.


What is Dark Social?

Have you ever had a Facebook friend send you a private message with a link to a product you’ve seen somewhere?  Or maybe they’ve sent you an email to a local café they recommend instead?  Using private digital communication tools like these, as well as SMS, Skype and more, are types of social sharing – but they’re called Dark Social because they are not trackable or traceable.

Of course once a person hits your website they can be tracked from there, but in your Google Analytics the traffic source or ‘acquisition’ will fall under that big bucket called “Direct”:

Direct Website Traffic

Most of you who regularly check your Google Analytics will know that this can often account for quite a large portion of your website traffic month by month, but we can never know for sure where it actually came from originally.


What’s the issue with Dark Social then?

It falls under the age-old saying:  “50% of my marketing is working.  I just don’t know which 50%.”

If we can’t adequately track the overall affects our marketing efforts are having, how can we continue to justify spend in certain areas?

And Dark Social is arguably one of the most valuable sources of traffic to our website.  Why?  Because 92% of consumers will prioritise a recommendation made by an individual over any other form of advertising or marketing communication (Nielsen).

92% of consumers will prioritise a recommendation made by an individual over any other form of advertising or marketing communication

But how do we know whether this ‘Direct’ traffic to our website was thanks to our TV ad about pergolas that someone saw and then texted their husband about?  Or whether it was thanks to our Facebook remarketing campaign for our fashion brand that prompted a user to private Facebook message her sister about those shoes?


So how do we start to track Dark Social?

There are of course some paid options available, such as Get Social.  But what are some other ways we can try to track this ourselves?

Configure Google Analytics

You could try to configure your Google Analytics to show likely dark traffic by narrowing down the data that you seek.  This is done via adding segments into your audience to look at only the Direct Traffic, and then excluding all of your simpler website URLs such as /blog, /contact and the like.  Social Media Examiner have a great step-by-step on this for you on their blog:  How to Track Dark Social in Google Analytics.


Custom URL Strings

You could also use “custom URL strings” to track dark social.  They pull referral information directly into Google Analytics which makes it easier for us to understand where traffic is coming from.  For example, if you click on an article from the AFR Twitter feed, the URL ends up looking something like this – note the mentions of “source=social” and “medium=twitter”.


Example of Custom URL String from the AFR Twitter, used to track dark socialTo locate this information in your Google Analytics dashboard, simply go Acquisition > All Campaigns > Source/Medium:

Google Analytics Dashboard, tracking custom URL strings



So there you have it – dark social.  It’s been around for a long time now, but as the prevalence of private messaging apps continues to rise, more and more of our website traffic is going to appear as ‘Direct’.  The onus then falls back to us as Marketers to work out how best to track this, and look at ways to maximise its potential.

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Simone Douglas

Simone Douglas

Simone is co-founder and Senior Principal Solutions Architect of Social Media AOK. Simone offers over 17 years in corporate management roles encompassing generalist HR recruitment and development of small to large teams across multiple sites, industry sectors and states. Experienced in a variety of social media platforms and their complimentary applications, social media strategy, risk management, disaster recovery and associated HR policies and processes.