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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.”

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.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and sister news outlet, The Real Daily, and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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  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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Social Media

Facebook’s Résumé takes another shot at LinkedIn

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook took another swipe at LinkedIn by introducing a new Résumé feature.



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Any job hunter is likely familiar with the little section somewhere during the application process where you’re asked to enter in social media information. Thankfully, Facebook is usually an optional field.

While I try to keep what the public can see of my social media profiles toned down enough as to not cause my grandmother to blush, I’m still not quite comfortable sharing my profile with prospective employers.

I’m sure many out there feel the same, and Facebook knows this.

Tinfoil hat theories aside, LinkedIn may be shaking in their boots as Facebook begins to advance their growth in the professional sector in their pursuit of social media domination.

Facebook has begun experimenting with a new Résumé/CV feature that works as an extension of your standard “Work and Education” section on a Facebook profile page, allowing users to share work experience in more detail with friends and family but most importantly: potential employers.

Luckily, the new Résumé/CV feature won’t be sharing personal photos or status updates, but will rather combine all the relevant information into a single, professional-looking package.

So far this feature appears to be rolled out to a small number of users, and it’s unclear when it will be officially launched, but this isn’t the first time Facebook has dipped their toes in the waters of the job sector, or took a jab at LinkedIn.

Several months ago, Jobs was launched, a feature that allows Business Pages to post job openings through the status composer, and keep track of them on their Page’s Jobs tab.

A Facebook spokesperson commented on the intent behind the new Résumé/CV feature, “At Facebook, we’re always building and testing new products and services.

We’re currently testing a work histories feature to continue to help people find and businesses hire for jobs on Facebook,” and so this is just the beginning of Facebook’s plan to become a one-stop-shop and create a more seamless way for people to find and get jobs.

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Social Media

Tag photos, connect with friends, order food?

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook seems to be sprawling into every nook and cranny of life and now, they’re infiltrating food delivery.



food delivery facebook

Facebook is now bringing you food! Although, no one was really asking them to.

In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, Facebook is attempting to transform into more than just a social media platform. They have partnered up with food delivery services to help users order food directly from their site.

They hope to streamline the process by giving users a chance to research, get recommendations and order food without ever leaving the site.

Facebook has partnered with their existing delivery services including EatStreet,, DoorDash, ChowNow and Olo in addition to restaurants to fast track the process.

The scenario they imagine is that while scrolling through the newsfeed, users would feel an urge to eat and look to Facebook for their options.

After chatting up friends via Facebook Messenger to ask for the best place to go, users would visit the restaurant’s page directly, explore their menu and decide to order. When ordering, you will have the option to use one of the partnered delivery services either with an existing account or by creating a new one.

The benefit is you stay on one site the entire time. With the time you save, the food can get to you faster, which is a plus for everyone.

Assuming that people already live on Facebook 24/7, this seems like a great update. If you like getting recommendations from your favorite social media resources, it’s even better.

The problem is that in recent years their younger audiences have dropped off in favor of other sites. Regardless of what they think, not everyone is flocking to Facebook for their every need.

My guess is that this service will benefit those already using Facebook, but is less likely to draw new audiences in.

Adding more services may not be the key to success if Facebook can’t refine their other features. They have already been criticized for their ad reporting practices, though they seem to fix everything with a new algorithm.

Facebook has continued to stray away from their original intent, and food delivery won’t be their last update.

Facebook wants to be everything, but not everyone may want the same.

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Social Media

Hate Facebook’s mid-roll ads? So does everyone else

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Those pesky ads that pop up in the middle of that Facebook video, aka mid-roll, seem to be grinding everyone’s gears.




In an ongoing effort to monetize content, Facebook recently introduced “mid-roll” ads into videos by certain publishers, and it has now been testing that format for six months. If you aren’t a big fan of those ads interrupting your content consumption experience, you aren’t alone; publishers aren’t crazy about them either.

In a report on the program, five publishers working with Facebook’s new mid-roll ad program were sourced and all five publishers found that the program wasn’t generating the expected revenue.

One program partner made as little as $500 dollars with mid-roll ads while generating tens of millions of views on their content.

Two other partners wouldn’t specify exact revenue number, but they did acknowledge that the ad performance is below expectations. As far as cost goes, certain publishers mentioned CPMs between 15 cents and 75 cents.

That range is large because a lot of the data isn’t clear enough to evaluate their return on investment. According to the Digiday report, publishers receive data on total revenue, along with raw data on things like the number of videos that served an ad to viewers.

The lack of certain data points, along with the confusing structure of the data, makes it difficult to assess the number of monetized views and the revenue by video. For context, YouTube, as arguably the biggest player in video monetization, provides all these metrics.

Another issue is that licensing deals are cutting into margins. Facebook pays publishers, via a licensing fee, to produce and publish a certain number of videos each month. In exchange, Facebook keeps all money until it recoups the fee, after which revenue is split 55/45 between the publisher and Facebook.

While these challenges doesn’t change the fact that revenue is low, it does make it difficult to dissect costs in a meaningful way.

Why is revenue so low to begin with?

For starters, a newsfeed with enough content to feed an infinite scroll probably isn’t the best format for these kinds of ads. As a user, when I’m watching the videos and the ad interrupts the experience, I’ve always scrolled right on through to the next item on my feed. It’s a sentiment echoed by one of the publishers in the Digiday story.

Because of that, Facebook’s new Watch program, which creates a content exclusivity not found on the news feed, might produce better results in the future. Either way, Facebook will need to solve this revenue challenge for publishers, or they might pull out of the programs altogether.

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