The other side of social sharing – Dark Social

May 10th, 2013
The other side of social sharing – Dark Social

Do you usually share news, events, articles and other information on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.? Have you tried to find out the impacts these social media networks have on your web presence? Or how many people visited your site via links shared on social networks?

If you haven’t, you can start off by using Google Analytics to check out the number of visitors you’ve received via referral sources like facebook.com, twitter.com and others. I’m sure you will have some visits coming in from some of the popular social networks if you’ve created some interesting and exciting content and shared it online.

Do these number reflect your full social presence? I would say no, though if you have a huge number of visitors coming in via social networks, you’re doing a great job and have great content but there’s another side to social sharing that isn’t as easy to track.

Yes, there was a time before Facebook

People were sharing content long before Facebook existed, even before MySpace or Friendster. Sharing went hand in hand with the Internet itself, social networks are just a channel that can be more or less measured.

Think of social networks as cinemas, you show a film, people buy tickets and go watch it. You can find out how many people watched the film by finding out how many tickets were sold. Then comes your DVD sales, you can measure how many copies you sold, but you can’t measure how many people watched it. Let alone the number who have shared their movies with their friends, you can’t even find out how many people live in a household to find out how many people watched the movie.

Social sharing is a similar case, while you can measure how many people come in via social networks (people who bought the tickets and watched the movies) you can even find out how many times you content was shared (how many theatres showed the film) but you cannot measure the true number of people who actually saw you content.

Think about how people shared stuff online before there were any social media networks. Someone who read an interesting article, copied the link and pasted it on instant messenger services, ICQ, chat rooms, forums or sent an email to all their friends. Visits from these links would show up as direct visits in your analytics data because no additional data is passed along to give your analytics software a better idea of where it comes from.

Shedding some light on Dark Social

This type of traffic has become known as “Dark Social” because a lot of social traffic has been and is still being masked as direct traffic. There is no sure-fire method to find out how many direct visits actually came via social sharing through email or chat but here are a few out-of-the-box thinking methods that can help you figure out where your Dark Social visits are hiding in Google Analytics.

  • When you’re looking at your direct traffic, check the landing page. People are likely to directly type in www.example.com or even www.example.com/page/subpage but people are very unlikely to key in www.example.com/page/archives/year/month/date/title. It’s just too long, no one is going to remember and whoever directly visited these pages probably got the URL from someone else who shared it with them.
  • When you’re looking at your direct traffic, check for new vs. returning visits. New visits are less likely to directly land on your sub-pages since they wouldn’t know what pages you have on your site and what are the direct URLs to those pages. It’s safe to assume the visitor probably got the link from someone they know.

We followed these methods when looking at our our direct traffic over the past few months and found that Dark Social makes up about 27% of our social traffic (see Chart 1).

dark social chart 1

Chart 1: Social traffic to prontomarketing.com by source

Facebook is still our overall largest social source, but Dark Social easily beats Twitter and LinkedIn combined. We admittedly have a fairly small following on our blog, so you can imagine that Dark Social would be a much bigger factor on more established sites. In fact, The Atlantic did some research with Chartbeat and found that Dark Social can cover 50-70% of social traffic (see Chart 2).

dark social chart 1

Chart 2: Social traffic to theatlantic.com by source

Why this is important

Well, it’s important because if you’re not thinking about Dark Social, you’re potentially missing out on 50-70% of the social sharing world. People spend so much time optimizing their sites and content for social networks – making sure Open Graph protocols are in place or adding Twitter Card markup data, but the thing that really drives Dark Social, and social sharing overall, is awesome, sharable content.

Dark Social is just another reminder that the needs of the user (read: great content) should always be put before optimizing for any social network or search engine. Sharable content is what has driven the web since it’s creation and no matter how new services or networks are created to help sift through the increasing amount of content out there, people sharing links with other people is always going to be a fundamental part of the internet.