What is Dark Social?

Posted on 03/05/2019 by Team Hallam

Dark Social might sound scary and frightening, but in its simplest form, it’s just a term used to explain content shared via social media that can’t be tracked easily by marketers.

Mr. Madrigal

The term Dark Social was coined by American journalist Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012. It’s often used by digital marketers to refer to content which is shared through social media, which can’t be tracked by any web analytics software.

An example of this could be a link to your website shared between two friends on WhatsApp. Once the link is clicked in the app, it will still take the user to the website, however trying to track how this user has come to your website via Google Analytics is almost impossible. This is due to the conversation by the two friends being encrypted and therefore the link not having a specific source attached to it.

Whispering in the dark

Okay, so we know that links shared through WhatsApp are classed as Dark Social, but what other sharing platforms contribute to this secret online world? Below are a few communication methods which would cause this to happen:

  1. Facebook Messenger or similar messaging apps
  2. Email
  3. Text messages / SMS

Encryption – what is it?

In most cases an encrypted piece of content is something that can only be seen by the person who sends it and the person who receives it.

However, saying that… there are two main types of encryption that you should be aware of:

Client-to-Server encryption

Although this type of encryption would classify for Dark Social, anyone who has access to the server can access the data.

End-to-End encryption

E2EE is fully encrypted, even those with access to the server won’t be able to see the content in these messages.

How to turn the lights on in your Google Analytics

Dark Social and Google Analytics don’t really get along, as it can’t be tracked… easily.

Although it’s almost impossible to track all Dark Social traffic, there are a few things that you can take into consideration to see if Dark Social is referring large amounts of traffic to your site.

Firstly, check the length of the links in your direct traffic. If it’s a super duper long link, it’s highly unlikely that the user has typed this in organically and is often the case of Dark Social traffic.

Also, the referrals section on Google Analytics is often mentioned in the same breath as social traffic due to Dark Social.

Another way to measure your dark social traffic is to use a tool called GetSocial which uses your Google Analytics data and automatically estimates how much dark social traffic your website receives.

getsocial screenshot

A few stats so you’re not left in the dark…

dark social importance stats
Source: Econsultancy

The future of Dark Social

As more online users seek out encrypted options as their preferred communication methods to ensure that their conversations are private, it is very unlikely that Dark Social traffic is likely to go away.

So it’s time to adjust your marketing flashlight and start implementing the following:

Custom tracking codes

If you’re not using them already, there is a wealth of information that can be gained by using this link option. Learn more here.

Include share buttons

Start to include sharing buttons in your content checklist. By having this option there for users, it not only makes sharing your great content easy for the reader but will give you valuable information on tracked shares.


Dark Social is a term used by digital marketers to refer to traffic that has visited a website from an unknown source. This often includes shared links through messenger apps, text messages, and email. It’s estimated that most sharing online is carried out through Dark Social, and although you cannot track it fully, there are a few things you can do to stay on top of it to a certain degree such as utilising custom tracking codes and checking out the length of links used for direct traffic.

How does Dark Social affect your online marketing methods? Let us know in the comments below…

If you need help with your social media don't hesitate to contact us.

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