Who’s never copied and pasted a link into an email to share an article, video, photo or other content? While it’s common and seemingly benign, sharing content in this way actually disrupts how we track and analyse traffic sources, since we can’t immediately tie the traffic to a social interaction. To truly understand the real impact of all kinds of social sharing, and to measure how “viral” certain content really is, we must shine a light on what’s called “Dark Social” traffic. When measuring its own site traffic, “The Atlantic” magazine discovered that more than 56% of its total traffic originated from this phenomenon. In this post, you’ll learn how to recognise “Dark Social” traffic, how to measure it and even encourage it to drive more traffic.

OK, so what is “Dark Social”?

“Dark Social” refers to all traffic originating from the sharing of content via communicational tools other than traditional social networks like Twitter and Facebook. First, it’s important to know that this kind of traffic is accounted for in the “direct traffic” your site receives, whereas “direct traffic” is typically associated with pages that users have saved to their “Favourites”, or URLs typed directly into a browser’s address bar. When we examine “Dark Social” traffic, we see that it likely results from direct links copied and pasted into an email, text message, chat program (including Facebook Chat, which gives no referrers but accounts for much “Dark Social” weight), or any other “non-traditional” social tool.

Measure “Dark Social” in 3 steps

To weigh the impact of these “Dark Social” interactions on your traffic:

  • Start by segmenting your traffic based on “external” direct traffic sources (those that do not have a referrer) and emails.
  • Look for long URLs. Realistically, these long URLs are unlikely to have been typed letter by letter into the browser address bar – these were most likely shared as links.
  • Finally, analyse this portion of traffic, focusing on one article in particular, or a group of articles. One thing to note: You should only look at entry pages, otherwise the source could be linked to another area.

You’ll then be able to measure the share of “Dark Social” traffic compared to your total site traffic by applying the following ratio:

% of “Dark Social” visits (for one or several articles)


Total visits (for one or several articles)

Keep in mind that there may be a margin of error due to recurring traffic from “Favourites” pages, which is why analysing “Dark Social” traffic often works best with news sites, where in theory, articles are read just once. Another important thing to remember is that marketing campaigns must be perfectly tracked to avoid having resulting visits show up as “Direct Traffic”, thereby distorting your results.

“Dark Social” vs. traditional social networks

“Dark Social” is picking up speed, sometimes even exceeding traditional social networks in share of traffic. Recently, our client France Télévisions confirmed this trend, showing that 21% of its traffic came from social sharing, of which 7% was via traditional social networks and 14% via “Dark Social”. Certain sites have reported seeing more than 50% of social traffic – and even up to 80% – come from “Dark Social”. Clearly, this phenomenon holds significant meaning for brands, to the point where it would be a shame to not embrace and encourage it.

Optimise, always and forever

One of the key takeaways here is that content should not necessarily be designed to be shared on a specific social platform – the content’s intrinsic value will determine whether it’s shared or goes viral, thereby boosting its success.

The ability to measure this dark share of traffic should also inspire you to take initiatives to optimise your site in order to encourage sharing:

  • For example, consistently integrate an email sharing button with your content. In doing so, you’ll be able to analyse the ratio of “Dark Social” and click rate, and draw correlations.
  • Another helpful idea: Cross-compare your “Dark Social” analysis with the various themes of your content. This will reveal insights into the most-shared subjects, the topics that strongly interest your readers, and where you should therefore concentrate your efforts.

With all this considered, “Dark Social” is not so dark after all (once we know how to identify it) and much more widespread than one might think. It can also have positive effects in the longer term, even giving a second wind to older content. Analysing “Dark Social” can put the spotlight on content that may not have worked well upon its initial publication, but succeeded much later due a particular context or current event. This information would allow a media group, for example, to promote more unique content without worrying that the content might fail. There are many different possible use-cases, and you now have the keys to discover them!

One last thing – feel free to share this article (on traditional social networks or otherwise 😉 )


Editorial Manager. Bernard is responsible for the content strategy of the AT Internet brand. He has almost 10 years’ experience in technical and marketing writing in the Software industry. A word specialist, Bernard’s job sees him working on many different mediums including blogs, white papers, interviews, business cases, press, infographics, videos etc. His specialist fields? Marketing and digital analytics content of course!