Recently one of our clients was seeing great results from their regular column that we promote through various social media channels. During our monthly reporting we had to tell the client that the majority of the link clicks were coming from ‘dark traffic. ‘Dark traffic’. Sounds sinister, doesn’t it? If you’re working in online marketing, public relations, or any sort of digital field you’ll probably have come across this phrase at some point. It’s a reality of the online world that isn’t going away, so here’s our guide to understanding ‘dark traffic’ and what it means for you, your business, and your clients.
In a nutshell, dark traffic refers to when Google can’t figure out where the traffic to your website is coming from. Dark traffic includes people following links to your site via text messages (or messaging services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Kik), native social media apps (like Facebook and Twitter), email, or people using private browser windows. People who click links to your website via these sources will show up as dark traffic on your analytics.
Surely hits are hits, whether you know where they come from or not? Sort of. If you painstakingly design an intricate and complex marketing campaign you’ll want to be able to check what methods and platforms are working best for you. Dark traffic makes this very difficult. If you see a spike in hits to your website attributed to dark traffic you won’t know if it’s coming from people sharing your link on messaging platforms, emailing it to their friends, or clicking through from apps.
How can you adequately measure your precious metrics? One of the best methods is to use link tracking and shortening services such as Bitly. Bitly allows you to shorten your cumbersome URLs (which is very handy for social media) and also does a great job of tracking the number of clicks each shortened URL gets. The down side? Bitly has dark traffic too. Bitly describes dark traffic as any Bitly link clicked on via email, social media mobile apps, text messages, any link typed directly into a browser and any link opened in a new browser. That encompasses a lot of clicks. Services like Bitly are very useful, but sadly not dark traffic-proof.
Another possible work around is setting up custom reports on your Google Analytics dashboard. These can tell you where the dark traffic is going, but not where it came from. This is useful in its own right, of course!
The ambiguity around dark traffic and the havoc it plays with your analytics isn’t likely to change any time soon, unfortunately. The seemingly inexorable rise of social media apps and end to end encrypted messaging services will be the bane of the digital professionals’ lives for many years to come, until someone figures out a foolproof new method of link distribution. I hope you’re not holding your breath!