What Is “Dark Social”?

December 20, 2013

You might have noticed an increase in direct referral traffic to pages on your website. This traffic can come from visits that result in bookmarked URLs or typing a URL directly in the browser, but much of this traffic also comes from “dark social." In the past, the term “dark social” sometimes referred to the “dark side of social media.” The phrase described online activities of drug dealers or the bad effects of social media, such as cyberbullying. In the fall of 2012, dark social started to be used in a different way. Now, dark social refers to social media sharing that isn't distinguishable from direct referral traffic that’s not social (e.g., bookmarks and typing the full URL, as mentioned above).

Examples of dark social sharing

  • Email
  • Online chatting
  • Text messages
  • Sharing a handwritten URL

Origins of the phrase

The first instance of the phrase “dark social” appears in what is still one of the best-known articles on the topic, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong” by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic (Oct 12, 2012). Madrigal’s article was reviewed by BuzzFeed less than a week later:  “There’s Less ‘Dark Social’ Than Meets the Eye” (Oct 18, 2012). Soon after that, the phrase appeared in other articles, such as “‘Dark Social’ Media” (Nov 1, 2012) and “Six serious misunderstandings about social CRM” (Nov 21, 2012).

Why should I be aware of dark social?

As you report on your website analytics, you can see how much traffic comes from social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. However, social networking goes beyond the big-name social networks. Email is social. Online chatting, texting, and even talking in person are all social activities. If you really want to track how much social activity is referring people to your site (versus most search traffic), dark social should figure into your numbers. Now that experts are aware of direct traffic and its largely dark social composition, they try to tackle the issue of these “invisible referrers” in relation to analytics.

One example is Angie Pascale’s article, “Tracking dark social media: a light at the end of the tunnel” (Dec 11, 2013). As Pascale points out, “Take note of direct traffic on the long, complicated URLs that users would rarely remember and type directly into a browser window. This will help to inform you of how much dark social sharing occurs with your content and further understand how you can accommodate the needs and habits of your target audience.”

What are your go-to resources on understanding dark social traffic? What observations are you making about the effects of dark social on your own website? Share your comments.

Posted By
Stephanie Hatch Leishman

Stephanie Hatch Leishman

Former MIT Social Media Strategist

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