The Dark Side of Google Analytics – What is Dark Traffic?

The Dark Side

There’s a dark side to your Google Analytics data that you should never underestimate. It flies under the radar and it complicates the tracking of marketing activities. This Google Analytics tracking flaw is called dark traffic and it’s not new, but it’s becoming more prevalent.

What is dark traffic?

Dark traffic refers to the visits to your site that are classified as direct traffic when Google Analytics can’t tell the source of a website visitor.

Where does dark traffic come from?

Dark traffic comes from quite a few different places.

  • Email – URLs shared in email correspondence don’t come with referral data
  • Messaging apps – Under-the-radar social sharing that happens via chat and instant message
  • Secure sites (HTTPS) – Referral data is often lost when coming from these sites
  • Mobile apps (growing quickly) – Visits that come through Facebook’s mobile app, for instance, do not consistently show up as being a Facebook referral

As a business owner or marketer, you can’t be certain that every direct visit to your site was made by a user who either typed the URL into their browser or bookmarked the site. You also can’t be certain that your efforts to increase social media traffic haven’t been working. Some visits from social networks may just be lost to the dark side.

Estimate the power of the dark side

You underestimate the power of the dark sideUnfortunately, there’s no good way to prevent Google from classifying this traffic as direct referrals. There is, however, a way to estimate just how much of your direct traffic may actually be dark traffic from other sources.

Take a look at the landing pages for direct traffic. If you’re not sure how to do this, try this custom report. The pages on that report that are really unlikely to attract visitors directly can most likely be attributed to dark traffic sources.

Are you a slightly more advanced Analytics user? If you know how to create custom reports, you could also filter the pages that are likely to attract visitors directly, such as your homepage and the front pages of important content sections. The visits that are left after you remove those landing pages from the report represent your estimated dark traffic.

Although it’s impossible to reveal the sources of dark traffic, pulling these reports will at the very least provide clues to where the dark traffic is going. From there, you can infer the source based on your knowledge of how you’ve been promoting that content. For example, if you see that several blog posts are driving dark traffic and you know that you’ve really been pushing them via social media, you can bet that’s the primary source.

Scratching your head and/or want to run screaming from your computer?
Drop me a line. I’m happy to answer questions or walk you through it!


Image: Screenshot/Empire Strikes Back