Direct Traffic vs. The Dark Social

by Gradiva Couzin on May 20, 2013

Q: I’ve started to notice that a large chunk of my direct traffic is landing on deeper pages. Some of these page URLs are very long. It seems odd these would be direct. Do I have a tracking issue?

A: This is a great question that we’ve been seeing more and more often lately.  Your first step is to check whether or not your tracking is working correctly. Follow Google’s instructions in the two links below to make sure there are no problems:

1. Ensure Google Analytics in on all pages, and configured to be practices

2. Check Google Analytics referral information with the Debugger Tool

The Dark Social

Assuming you found no errors in your Google Analytics review, let’s dig into why you’re seeing direct traffic landing on deep pages within your site.

Many people in the SEO industry currently believe that a large chunk of the direct traffic you see in Google Analytics is actually coming from the “Dark Social”, a term coined by The Atlantic editor Alexis Madriga. Boiled down, the Dark Social are places across the internet from which analytics programs cannot track referral data. This includes: email, chat programs, and some mobile applications.

On our own site, yourseoplan.com, Google Analytics shows we had 1,476 Direct visitors for the month of March.  But were those visitors really all people who either typed our URL in the browser window or bookmarked our pages with their browsers?  Not likely. Thinking in terms of the Dark Social, direct traffic visits actually number only 672, with a little more than half actually coming from referrals that cannot be tracked.  Here’s a screenshot showing actual direct traffic vs. dark social traffic:

The Dark Social

One way to segment out the Dark Social is to create a segment in your Analytics solution that filters for Direct traffic and excludes the home page. You can click this link to see this segment if you are using Google Analytics.  To be more conservative, you can use this advanced segment which will also count any subfolder with 4 characters in it. Neither of these techniques is perfect: they’ll probably overcount your Dark Social visits.  If you publish printed marketing materials that display subfolders (such as www.example.com/2013sale) then be sure to exclude those from the Dark Social segment as well.

With your newfound information of the Dark Social traffic, you may have more “social” traffic than you previously thought!  More importantly, you’ve gained a better understanding of the true sources of visits to your site.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lenka Istvanova May 30, 2013 at 6:18 am

Great article! I’ve noticed this pattern with my clients too. The increase in direct traffic month on month as well as year on year is significant. Thanks for sharing the Dark Social segment will definitely try it.

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