Dark Search Traffic

Posted on 11/02/2016 by Team Hallam

Have you seen an inexplicable increase or decrease in your traffic? Struggling to figure out why this has happened?

It’s quite possible that the answer that you are looking for is Dark Search.

What is Dark Traffic?

In a nutshell, dark traffic sources have no referrer information and are often represented within Google Analytics as direct traffic. Most direct traffic isn’t direct at all, it’s a combination of search (image and secure), apps, browsers, plus a little actual direct traffic.

For example, if I were to search for The Smurfs using the search feature on my phone, I would be presented with the following screen:

As you can see this presents me with a range of options to find out more Smurfy information from the App Store, Wikipedia, films, and Suggested Websites.

If I were to select smurf.com from the list of suggested websites, this would be recorded as a direct visit within Google Analytics – even though I have actually conducted a search to find this information.

If we take this a little further, Google Analytics will categorise clicks to news stories that sit below the search box as direct visits too. If I click the Super Bowl half-time show review article shown below, it will take me to a page with the following URL: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/feb/07/beyonce-coldplay-super-bowl-50-halftime-show-review However, there is no way I would remember a 96 character long URL to directly type this in to the address bar.


In the case of dark social, this could be URLs that are socially shared e.g. by directly copying and pasting a link in to a text message, personal email or instant messaging services such as Skype or Facebook messenger, and private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat.

The problem with dark search and dark social traffic arises when Google categorises all unknown traffic sources as direct, leaving you with a mass of unaccountable data.

How To Find Your Dark Search Traffic

In his session at SMX East in September, Marshall Simmonds provided a useful formula for finding your Dark Social and Dark Search Traffic.

Dark Social

To find your dark social traffic:

  • Log in to Google Analytics.
  • Pull all your direct traffic data (Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Direct).
  • Apply an advance filter to exclude your home page and website section fronts.

The data that is left shows all your dark social traffic.

Dark Search

To find your dark search traffic, carry out the steps outlined above and carry out these two additional steps:

  • Verify links against your social campaign (i.e. what have you shared across your social channels).
  • Filter for New Users.

The data you are left with is your dark search traffic.

How Does This Affect Mobile?

Although most mobile Apps and Chrome pass referral traffic data accurately, the Android search app passes referrer traffic as direct. Additionally, not all Apps pass on a referral tag, so these will therefore get counted as direct traffic. This should therefore be taken in to account when analysing your mobile traffic.

I have briefly mentioned SMS and private messaging as a source of dark referral traffic. According to Econsultancy, this could be one of the most overlooked dark social channels out there. Findings revealed by BuzzFeed show that SMS is the top sharing option on their BuzzFeed News app, suggesting that adding SMS sharing options to your website is worth a try.

Social sharing options on the Buzzfeed website
WhatsApp sharing on Buzzfeed mobile site


Beware of misinformation provided in the Google Analytics direct traffic report. Website visitors are using a plethora of options for sharing information, and social sharing has progressed much further than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Depending on how well your brand is known, there could be a lot of dark traffic sources hidden within the direct traffic report.

The formulas provided above are useful to help breakdown which proportion of your direct traffic is actually coming from Dark Search and Dark Social.

If you are regularly adding content to your website, you should consider adding an SMS (or WhatsApp) share option to your news or blog pages.

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Dark Search Traffic

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