Facebook is the king of dark social

Dark social is about to change the way we look at the impact of social media sharing. Due to dark social sharing, traffic to your webpage from social media is probably bigger than you anticipate. According to Chartbeat, about a third of external traffic is dark social. On mobile up to 50% of the traffic is without referrer. Now it’s time to shed some light on dark social.


What is dark social?

First of all, dark social is not a bad thing. It refers to all the traffic on social media that is untrackable and thereby difficult to measure. It consists of shares in emails, text messages, WhatsApp and the like.

The term “dark social” was coined by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic back in 2012. The term still hasn’t got its own Wikipedia article in English, but on German Wikipedia is it described as geheimer Datenverkehr, secret data traffic.

Madrigal concludes: “The sharing you see on sites like Facebook and Twitter is the tip of the ‘social’ iceberg. We are impressed by its scale because it’s easy to measure.”

An analysis in 2012 by Chartbeat showed that 69% of social referrals were dark. A recent report from RadiumOne concludes that dark social accounts for 69% of all online sharing – the same number as Chartbeat in 2012.

How dark social works

Together with Chartbeat, Madrigal realized in December 2014 that a big amount of the dark social traffic is actually visits from the Facebook mobile app. For some reason the visit is not ascribed to Facebook traffic when someone click on a link in the Facebook app. Also traffic from the Reddit mobile app is not categorized as Reddit traffic. Furthermore, sharing in Gmail and IM/text does not show in the statistics.

By tracking Facebook mobile visits, dark social traffic went down with 40% at the Atlantic. At the same time Facebook referrals increased with almost the exact same number. At the Guardian they have also been crunching the numbers, so they only lacked referrals from 10-15% of the visits.

The conclusion is that most of the dark social is Facebook traffic. As Madrigal points out: “The takeaway is this: if you’re a media company, you are almost certainly underestimating your Facebook traffic. The only question is how much Facebook traffic you’re not counting.” This goes for all other companies as well.

Madrigal explained in 2012 that most of the social traffic the Atlantic gets, derives from dark social. This is when people go direct to an article like http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/.

No one types that url in the browser, so it must derive from some kind of sharing that can’t be tracked as sharing on social media. The traffic from dark social (56.5%) is more than 2,5x Facebook traffic (21.6%).

To sum it up: The traffic you get from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks is not the sum of your traffic from social. It is much bigger. This basically changes the way we should look at the impact of social media. The social sharing is much bigger than we have anticipated and that most companies track.

So next time you show your boss the value of social sharing, make sure to include some of that dark social traffic in your reports. But how much of that direct/other traffic should you ascribe to social media sharing?

How do you measure dark social?

Social media specialist at Sitecore, Mikael Lemberg, has this rule of thumb: Every time you can track one visitor coming from Facebook, 4 dark social visitors will also be coming from Facebook. So you can multiple your Facebook referrals with 4. Say you get 1000 visitors from Facebook; you can count it as 5000 visitors.

In your analytics program, dark social is included in ‘direct’, ‘other’ or ‘typed/bookmarked’ according to Lemberg and Madrigal.

At Chartbeat they recommend you to look into the traffic patterns of your articles: “You’re likely to be able to identify the source of dark social for specific stories if you choose to dive in.”

How do you get more of it?

What you want is more sharing on social media and as a result thereof more traffic. At the same time you would want to track more of your dark social traffic, to get a better understanding of what sources give you the most traffic.

The best way to get more traffic from social – whether dark or trackable – is to make content that people want to share with their friends. Look at what articles on your webpage gets the most direct referrals – this should give you an idea about what type of content your users want. Look at what people like to share on social media within your topic, and give people something to talk about.

How is dark social related to dark posts?

Dark posts are not related to dark social, because dark posts are indeed trackable. Facebook’s Dark Post features allow you to post to a specific custom audience, without showing that posts on your Facebook page to your reguar fans.


Global Facts Dark Social

Let’s discuss Dark Social and how to measure it on social media! Catch me on Twitter or follow Komfo TwitterFacebookLinkedIn or Google+ to stay updated on social media marketing trends in general.


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