The last time you wanted to send your coworker a hilarious article, how did you do it? Tweet at them? Post it on their Facebook wall? Probably not ... their cube is literally two feet away from yours. I'd venture a guess you IMed or emailed it to them -- or maybe even asked them to walk over to your screen.
Pretty typical, right? You don't want your social networks to see 100% of what you share at all moments in the day -- sometimes, you just want to share something with someone through a private message.
Unfortunately, by sharing that link through email, your IM, or on your computer screen itself, you're actually mucking up the site's analytics. And anyone sharing your website that way is also mucking up your analytics. YIKES.
This is all a problem because analytics systems bucket your traffic based on the URL that's referring it, your analytics will not attribute the source of visits like these to the correct buckets.
So how do fix this problem of weird analytics source reporting? What the heck do you call the traffic you get from IM clients, personal emails, or just two people viewing one page on one computer? That's why we're here today, folks. Keep on reading.
Say Hello to Dark Social
Dark social is basically any traffic you get to your site because your analytics can't correctly identify the site sending you the traffic. There are two main reasons why your analytics wouldn't be able to figure out the exact source of a visit:
1) If the visitor is coming from a source that can't be traced by your analytics program.
This is what we were talking about: one-to-one emails or your company's IM client or you viewing an article on another person's computer with them. Most often, the reason your analytics can't keep track of the source of the traffic is because the source doesn't send referral data -- which is how the rest of your analytics gets bucketed.
When someone clicks on your site's URL on Twitter, for example, Twitter will let your analytics know that that's where the visitor came from.
2) If someone shares a link with UTM parameters (those little strips of code you manually add to a URL to track traffic sources, among other things) on an incorrect platform.
For instance, if someone were to share a link through email with UTM parameters on it that designate visitors who click on that link as coming from Twitter, the person they shared it with would get bucketed into the Twitter source category ... even though they didn't actually come from Twitter.
What dark social is NOT is the "Not Provided" under your organic search settings. Though not knowing what keywords are sending you traffic is definitely frustrating, your analytics still knows that people are coming from searching Google.
Make sense? Now that we're on the same page about what the heck dark social is, I know what your next question is: Is there any way to shed light on your dark social to figure out exactly which sources are sending you traffic?
Decoding Dark Social in Your Analytics
In short ... not really. Dark social is complicated (as you saw above), and it's even more complicated to track. It affects every single analytics system out there, and there's no real solution yet for properly tracking it. In short, dark social is a beast that you probably can't fix -- but you should be aware of it in your own marketing.
That being said, you can get a snapshot of your dark social traffic by diving into one referral source: direct traffic. Most often, when people come to your site on a link without UTM parameters from an email client or IM system, they'll get bucketed into direct traffic.
And it's easy to pick out those links: They're full URLs that look like no human being could ever remember them, let alone type them directly into their browser. This pretty much means any pages that aren't your main URL, your blog homepage, or prominent sub-pages on your website. We're talking links that aren't like hubspot.com, hubspot.com/jobs, blog.hubspot.com, or blog.hubspot.com/marketing. These are all easy-to-remember links and it seems logical that someone could type them in.
So if you see long, complicated URLs like that in your direct traffic that is most likely dark social.
Really, there's only one way to decode dark social: by removing incorrect UTM parameters from URLs you share on dark social platforms. Yup, I know this isn't for your site, but think about how happy the marketer on the other end will feel when they realize their traffic is more accurate!
So go on, pay it forward. Removing incorrect UTM parameters by hand -- your fellow marketers will start to see their analytics become a little less dark. And who knows? Maybe yours will, too!
Do you get a ton of dark social traffic on your website? How do you try to track it? Share your experiences with us in the comments!
Originally published Nov 20, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017