Dark Social: A Mystery No More

For a short time, dark social was all the rage – in that it absolutely enraged publishers and marketers. Coined by Alexis Madrigal two years ago, when he worked at The Atlantic (he’s now at Fusion), the term “dark social” refers to all of the social media traffic that sites generate, but can’t correctly source. In other words, people are visiting sites – but the site owners can’t tell where they came from.

“Dark social” sources might include emailed or chatted links, or social media sites that are not properly tracked by analytics. Nearly 25 percent of overall traffic and 70 percent of social traffic was unattributed in this manner when Madrigal first mentioned it in October 2012, casting doubt on where readers came from and how best to reach those readers.

At the time, Madrigal theorized that much of the traffic simply came from users sharing links outside of structured social media sites, through channels like email and chat. His contact at web analytics service Chartbeat then attributed the murky traffic to mobile referrals, which weren’t well tracked and at the time accounted for a paltry 4 percent of website traffic (these days, mobile is at 60 percent of all traffic).

More recently, RadiumOne came out with a survey showing that 59 percent of sharing happens on “dark social,” while just 31 percent comes from Facebook, and claiming 91 percent of consumers share on dark social. For this study, RadiumOne seemed to look at email and chat as the main components of dark social, but it could encompass copying and pasting a link into any kind of external messaging service, including text messages.

But in close succession, Chartbeat reported that most of this “dark social” traffic is actually coming from mobile apps. And the leading referral app is Facebook, further cementing the dominant social network’s status as an important publisher partner. As Madrigal now describes the situation, “Facebook owns web media distribution.” He supports this assertion with his own study, which finds that most Facebook referrals are not appropriately attributed and that Facebook traffic tracks dark social traffic quite closely.

Tracking traffic has long been difficult on mobile, as users move between apps and the web and back in complex and unpredictable ways. Traffic just doesn’t flow as smoothly, or as track-ably, on mobile as it did on the web. Passing referral data between apps, like Facebook or Twitter, and mobile web browsers, just isn’t as simple as linking between web pages.

Chartbeat told Madrigal that upwards of 50 percent of external traffic may lack referral data on mobile. Apps need to enable app identity to the user agent (a setting that keeps track of user data) so that other apps can see referrals. Many apps don’t do that, and many analytics programs can’t track that identity through the user agent. Chartbeat recently changed its structure to better read app referral data, and other companies are following suit.

To combat the problem of dark social, many publishers are now using specially coded URLs when sharing on social media, so they can track content based on the URL and bypass the need to rely on analytics software. While this is a workable approach, it’s also cumbersome. Publishers deserve to know where their traffic comes from, and app makers should be transparent about the traffic they refer. Ultimately, it’s good for all of us to know more about how traffic flows between popular mobile apps and the web.