Uncovering dark social


We’ve all been there.

You’re analyzing your website data, but where are some of these numbers coming from?

The only thing your analytics data shows is that the data comes from a “direct” source, meaning the views are coming from a user accessing the exact link of the blog post.

But there are only a few ways a user can find your blog post through its direct URL. There cannot be THAT many people typing in the exact URL of the post, can there?

There’s a good possibility that this data came from Dark Social, data that makes up a large portion of traffic, especially for direct referrals, and is growing.

Not that kind of dark.

Dark social refers to “the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs.” [1] This includes mediums such as email, text, SMS messaging, or any untraceable medium that allows users to access the direct URL. Whoever discovers how to track this will likely get rich overnight, but the recent Facebook data scandal likely put a damper on these odds. In addition, since Facebook gave Spotify and Netflix access to users’ private messages. [2] It’s likely that social platforms will see more data restrictions rather than added access, especially if they become regulated.

Since marketers cannot yet gather this kind of data, there is still much to learn about Dark Social.

(Okay, I’m finished with the Star Wars references.)

But what DO we know so far?

Marketing researchers have found that dark social accounts for 84 percent[3] of outbound sharing, which leads to a lot of untraceable data!

The lack of Dark Social data does not mean it should be avoided. The data are a sign of quality content and will always be an indirect result of it. If the goals are to increase the shareability of website content, then the fact that consumers are sharing through dark social is fantastic. This means a consumer is viewing the content, finding it insightful, and referring it to a friend or colleague they believe can benefit from it. It’s basically the online version of a word-of-mouth referral, one of the most prized terms in business, but tracing it is basically impossible.

Dark Social is turning into one of the largest sources of traffic online and something marketers are seeking to track, especially in this age of content. In fact, Dark Social recently passed Facebook in traffic referrals earlier this year. [4] It’s important to note that Facebook use is down due to the company’s recent privacy scandal mentioned earlier, which helped Dark Social surpass the network in online referrals, but even with Facebook use in a tailspin, the website still receives an immense amount of traffic, so these dark social numbers are impressive. These numbers also provide great insight into new behavior patterns of online users. Instead of sharing the content on traceable social feeds, users are sharing it through untraceable channels such as messenger apps and email.

What is Dark Social? Investigating Untraceable Data Click to Tweet

Traceable or not, Dark Social data are a positive sign. But how can you tell what data from your analytics is created by dark social?

The biggest indicator is the “direct” source. If you are familiar with analytics, you know direct sources are defined as one of two things: when a user punches in the URL directly, and “traffic for which the referrer is unknown and for which no prior campaign data could be found for the cookie (user).” [5]

Think about it: how many users actually typed the exact URL of your page? This means that the direct data is probably a result of the latter—traffic for which the inferrer is unknown.

This traffic is not necessarily unknown, it simply cannot be traced. Whether it be from data privacy laws (which are ALWAYS a good thing) or that researchers have not developed an adequate AI, these direct sources remain unknown. But the fact of the matter is that researchers know much of these data are caused by dark social, just not specifically which dark social mediums. The URL may have been accessed through an email shared from colleague to colleague, or through other untraceable communications like WhatsApp, text messaging or social media messengers.

One of the more surprising statistics is that 46% of Baby Boomers share content via dark social [6]. While the numbers fluctuate, it’s apparent that sharing over dark social is cross-generational and should be considered when tracking analytics.

Marketers should keep in mind this behavior is more of a pure act by all users rather than an act against “Big Brother”—people have always shared articles through email and messenger. But it would not be surprising if users take a more proactive approach in the future to hide their analytics due to the major data scandals in the media cycle.

Do we have the solution to Dark Social? No, but we do know what it is, mostly.

Like all undiscovered things, researchers will always strive to discover the unknown. In the case of Dark Social, marketers should remain hopeful and embrace it rather than avoid it. But with the recent data scandals, the future of Dark Social remains foggier than ever.



  1. Why It’s Time to Shine the Light on ‘Dark Social’. https://www.martechadvisor.com/articles/social-media-marketing-2/why-its-time-to-shine-the-light-on-dark-social/
  2. Facebook gave Spotify and Netflix access to users’ private messages. https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/18/18147616/facebook-user-data-giveaway-nyt-apple-amazon-spotify-netflix
  3. Dark Side of Mobile Sharing. https://radiumone.com/darksocial/
  4. Uncovering Dark Socialhttps://getsocial.io/resources/uncovering-dark-social#gs.uRuBdEA?utm_source=mta&utm_campaign=10481&utm_term=joaoromao
  5. Campaigns and Traffic Sources. https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/6205762?hl=en
  6. What Your Marketing Team Needs to Know About Dark Social. https://hackernoon.com/what-your-marketing-team-needs-to-know-about-dark-social-686bd56fa179

Contact The Bean Team