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Dark social: the website traffic data that we never see

With a recent editorial on web traffic analysis, tech writers around the globe are taking a second look at what is being called “dark social.”

dark social

dark social

What is dark social?

You’ve heard of dark matter, unseen matter making up most of the universe, which doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiation, therefore cannot be seen directly, rather is detected by its gravitational effects. In the spirit of the unseen dark matter populating the universe, Alexis Madrigal, Senior Editor at The Atlantic opines that there is unseen matter in all of our website traffic data analysis called “dark social,” which is the direct traffic that is invisible to analytics programs.

Madrigal noted that over half of all traffic to the magazine was direct traffic, and he observed that since no one manually types out “,” yet people were coming from somewhere, he suggests this traffic comes primarily from email, and IM, or in the dark rather than in public on social networks like Facebook or Twitter.

A fascinating theory: history is wrong

One of the most fascinating positions Madrigal put forth is that the history of the web is wrong. “The social sites that arrived in the 2000s did not create the social web,” Madrigal writes, “but they did structure it. This is really, really significant. In large part, they made sharing on the Internet an act of publishing (!), with all the attendant changes that come with that switch.”

Madrigal continued, “Publishing social interactions makes them more visible, searchable, and adds a lot of metadata to your simple link or photo post. There are some great things about this, but social networks also give a novel, permanent identity to your online persona. Your taste can be monetized, by you or (much more likely) the service itself.”

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So what about all this direct traffic talk?

So, if social networks really are a public documentation of sharing activities that have gone on for decades, where are all of the links that are shared privately over email or G-Chat or the like? Madrigal says they’re showing up on our analytics dashboard as simply “direct traffic,” which is an often overlooked metric. Below is what The Atlantic’s traffic when they account for dark social… it’s simply stunning.


Maybe it’s deeper than “dark social”

Tech writer Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed counters Madrigal, stating, “It might be more accurate to call the universe of direct traffic the noumenal web— a big, messy bowl of stuff that we know is there but whose composition we can’t actually probe with any of our traditional senses (in this case, web analytics, or our nose).”

Buchanan adds, “So the question is how much this noumenal web is secretly social, and how much of this dark social is just, well, dark. BuzzFeed’s data scientists have gathered data from the BuzzFeed Network — a set of sites like TMZ and The Daily Mail that collectively have over 300 million users — that sheds more light on dark social and direct traffic,” concluding that “the more social a piece of content is, the less direct traffic it gets. And that direct traffic tends to skew toward coming from older, non-urban, less tech savvy people.”

Buchanan asserts that “dark social” is too broad of a term for all direct traffic, a form of traffic that we would add most analytics dashboards fail to help businesses to understand.

The tremendous, mysterious traffic source

Regardless of whether it is called “dark social” or the “noumenal web,” Madrigal and Buchanan’s theories unveil that although social media is a great traffic source, direct traffic (representing private link sharing through email, G-Chat, and the like) is a tremendous, mysterious, and often overlooked traffic source. All website owners should spend more efforts focusing on the “dark social,” the content not shared out in the open, and do more than simply ask for a Facebook Like.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. kenbrand

    October 22, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Is this like digital Crop Circles?  I mean, we don’t know what we don’t know, right?

  2. L8enough

    October 23, 2012 at 9:27 am

    @rvabusiness I tell people all the time that word of mouth and email is the best way to support my blog. Dark social FTW

  3. Pingback: The rise of dark social: All science, no seduction - The American Genius

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