How to Leverage the Dark Side of Dark Traffic

Research shows, out of all the content being shared online, almost 77% is shared through ‘dark social’. In fact, most of us engage in sharing content over the ‘dark’ part of social media, without even being aware of it. If you have ever shared any content, with anyone, through either a personal messaging app or through an email, you have engaged in dark social sharing.

The term ‘dark social’ was introduced in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal in his article ‘Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong’. The term refers to traffic which is categorized as ‘direct traffic’ by various analytic tools when, in reality, the traffic is originating from organic sources, and is being shared among users.

With so much untrackable traffic originating from dark social, it is important to understand what it is, and how your business can leverage this opportunity.

What is dark traffic?

Whenever someone clicks on a link from either a search engine results page (SERP) or a platform of social media, a referral tag (also known as a UTM code) is attached with the link that tells the analytic tool the origin of the point from where the interacting was prompted.

But when this content is shared through a messaging app or an email, there is no referral tag attached to the URL, and the analytic tool categorizes the interaction under ‘direct traffic’. Direct traffic, as the name suggests is the category of traffic generating from directly putting the link in the address bar. Essentially, the traffic generated from sources that cannot be identified by an analytic tool is called the dark traffic.

Sources of dark traffic

Below is a list that will give you a fair idea of where the dark traffic originates from. Although, you should keep in mind that social media is constantly evolving and changing, which might spawn new sources of dark social traffic in the future.

  • Links shared through personal messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat, among others.
  • Links shared through Gmail.
  • Dark/Organic searches- Similar to dark social, dark searches bring about traffic identified as direct traffic by the analytic tool, but is, in reality, the result of organic search. This usually happens when someone uses in-app searches, phone search features (see example below), or uses private mode while browsing.
  • Links shared through SMS.
  • Links shared through an email client such as Microsoft Outlook.
dark traffic
In phone search feature does not provide UTM codes.

Why you cannot ignore dark traffic.

Traffic originating from dark social is simply too large to be ignored. Add to that, the fact that if someone is sharing your content personally, they have found it relevant and have calculated that their community would benefit from the same content. This situation is ideal for conversions. If you are still not convinced that dark traffic has a huge impact on your business, here are a couple of statistics from a study conducted by RadiumOne:

  • 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing is done through various channels of dark social.
  • In February 2016, just 11% of site-originated mobile shares and 21% of mobile clickbacks happened via Facebook worldwide. In contrast, Dark Social channels made up 82% of site originated mobile shares and 67% of mobile clickbacks worldwide.

It is evident from these statistics that if you want to engage with your audience, you cannot ignore the importance of dark social because it is how your existing customers are spreading the word about your business to future prospects. It might be appropriate to say that dark social is a new form of word-of-mouth advertising.

Tracking the traffic originating from dark social

As mentioned earlier, analytic tools cannot track traffic prompted from dark social and categorize it under direct traffic. However, there are certain tricks you can use to monitor and track dark traffic coming on your website:

  • List out all the URLs of your website, and omit the short ones that you are confident were typed in the address bar by the user. Check the traffic for the longer URLs, ones that one cannot possibly remember and type through an analytics tool. This should give you a fair idea of the dark traffic you are receiving.
  • Tag ALL the links you share (this includes links shared through social media, your website, and your email campaigns) with UTM markups. These are short attached at the end of an URL, which specifies where it came from.
  • Use URL shorteners like to share shortened URLs which can be tracked easily through the same website. Shortened URLs go amazingly with content shared on Twitter as well.
  • Make social sharing buttons prominent and easy to use, and tag them with separate UTM codes. If your content features prominent social sharing buttons, the user might find it easier to just click on them instead of copying the URL and then sharing it with someone.

You can even use tools like by RadiumOne, or that not only allow users to share content through multiple channels, but also have features that allow you to measure the copy and shares of your website’s URL.

dark social
The part in the red box is the UTM tag.

Leveraging and amplifying dark traffic

Once you have figured out how you can track the dark traffic you are receiving, it only makes sense to act on the data and develop strategies to leverage this opportunity. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Create amazing content. While I have a fair idea of the number of times someone has given you this advice, there is no way around it. If you create great (relevant) content that is genuinely useful, it is bound to be shared, either through the conventional channels of sharing or through dark social.
  • Engage dark social visitors with high quality, targeted content. Analyze patterns, understand what kind of content they are interested in, and expose them to targeted content that they might find relevant or even better, share-worthy. This will convert the one-time visitors into returning visitors of your website.
  • Retarget dark social visitors through paid social marketing and email marketing. If possible, create personalized content that will drive higher engagement and conversion rates.
  • Encourage sharing by not just including prominent social sharing buttons, but through the content itself.


Dark social traffic is a vast avenue that remains unexplored for the most part. However, the sheer magnitude of numbers involved tells us that it dark traffic needs more attention if we want to gain a better understanding of how the audience thinks and what engages, and more importantly, inspires them to act. I hope this blog post has cleared up at least some of the doubts and questions you had about dark social sharing and dark traffic and has given you some sort of direction to work on.

Have you harnessed the power of dark social in your business? How did that work for you? Tell us about it in the comments.

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