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Do Our Web Analytics Reveal the Complete Picture?

Thoughts on “Dark Social” and related posts that have been surfacing lately.

Do Our Web Analytics Reveal the Complete Picture?

Looking upon the history of web, we realize that in its earliest stage, the web simply comprised pages of information that were linked to each other. The second stage of development saw the coming up of search engine crawlers that help you locate information on the web. Towards the end of 2003, the social networks started creating a buzz in the online world. What started as a medium for connecting with friends became a platform for sharing and spreading information. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube also turned into tools for digital marketing. To measure the actual results of these efforts, developers and engineers also created web analytic tools.

So, is the actual picture of web and success of networking simply about search engine results, clicks and traffic on website and social media usage statistics? Not quite so! As per an article authored by Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, we are missing the bigger picture and have ignored a substantial part of the facts – there is another very social aspect of the web and these have been in existence for quite some time now. Alex refers to the instant messengers, chat rooms, ICQ, USENET forums and emails that we have used over the years and still use frequently. A lot of links and files are shared with friends through these tools.  True, sharing on the social networking sites is prominent (and measurable) but there exists a parallel service – something that remains hidden and unexplored by the modern and ‘useful web analytic tools’. This, in essence is the ‘dark social’ as per Alexis Madrigal. The usage of and sharing on these dark social tools is indeed not easy to gauge. Thanks to this, the information that we actually get and perceive is very limited.

The usage of and sharing on these dark social tools is indeed not easy to gauge. Thanks to this drawback, the information that we actually get and perceive is very limited. You can check if someone comes to your site from Google, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube but it is not quite feasible to check the number of visits and conversions that links on emails, messengers, mobile applications and other one-o-one forms of social tools bring for you.

So, there is a big trove of social traffic that is practically invisible to our sophisticated analytic tools. It does show up in some programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic – the website owners comprehend that users have bookmarked their sites but how did the link actually reach this user is not known. It might have been shared via hotmail, Google chat or BBM and so the actual value of the concerned tool gets over looked.

Curious to measure the traffic coming broadly from ‘dark social’ on The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal contacted real-time web analytics firm, Chartbeat. The firm analyzed the users who showed up without any referrer data and segregated them into two sections:  i) the visitors going to a homepage ( or a subject landing page ( and ii) the visitors going to any other page – for instance a specific article page.

As per Chartbeat, it was this second category of people who were following some links as no one actually inputs “URLs like”

Chartbeat counted these people and referred to them as ‘direct social’ (not dark social). Surprisingly, 56.5% of the traffic came from these sources! This was against 21.65 from Facebook and 11.2% from Twitter So even if this cannot be sub-divided into ‘traffic from Google Talk, BBM, Windows Messenger, and different email sources, the fact remains that significance of these tools in bringing traffic to a site cannot be underestimated. What holds true for The Atlantic also applies to most other websites.

The reactions to this finding:

There were some articles written in response to Alexis Madrigal’s write up and respondents feel that the term ‘dark social’ is a little melodramatic. They feel that the traffic simply comes either directly or from social networks and links shared on emails.  A study by Econsultancy’s multichannel conversion report revealed that it is the direct traffic that actually brings about 47.5 percent of the conversions for websites while search engine results pull visitors who contribute to 39.5 percent conversions – it is these visitors who come to the portal with a specific interest in the business offerings. Further, even if a link comes in an email, it may get shared on social media platforms or bookmarked to be used later and then bring traffic for the site. In this case, which channel should get the credit – the email, social media or direct source? The answer is ALL THREE and this is because:

  • Email initiates the complete funnel path
  • Social media site enables sharing (with a larger group)
  • Bookmark becomes the last touch point prior to actual conversion

The most important source is then the person who started and the people who accelerated the process. They were the trusted sources who helped in delivery of information.

To conclude therefore, the entire concept is subjective and a case of semantics. For the digital marketers, the trick is to find that magic mix that suits their customers. While for some, a link on email or messenger may be very valuable, for some others, it carries more value when it gets shared on Facebook or reflects in search results on Google.

‘Dark Social’ then not entirely ‘social’ – it is the accretion of efforts by different team members, across multiple channels, over time along with the ultimate push that comes from the customers. Web analytics may just appear to be little ‘biased’ in favor of few channels that create louder buzz on web!

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European Search Personality of the year 2014, Kristján Már Hauksson, is the Co-Founder and COO of SMFB Engine, based in Oslo, Norway. This newfound digital activation/marketing agency works closely with the award winning creative agency, SMFB, in making sure that each idea has the digital presence to make it fly. Kristján is a publish author on the topic Internet Marketing and Search Engine Marketing.