What Is Dark Traffic And How Can Marketers Take Advantage Of It

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Browsers don’t always report the source of traffic accurately. A famous example of this glitch is the organic traffic drop websites encountered when iOS 6 was launched back in 2012. These websites, however, gained an equal amount of direct traffic.

But was really direct traffic?

Data driven marketing has enabled marketers to make smarter, more informed decisions that drive results. Most of us have been so engaged with driving said results, that we never stop to check if our data is accurate, especially when it is coming from a trusted source like Google Analytics.

In this article, you are going to learn if your website is getting traffic from an undetected source, and what you should be doing about it.

Dark Traffic: What Is It?
In 2012, webmasters at The Atlantic discovered that 25% of the traffic on their website was coming from an undetected source. Chances are, this ‘dark traffic’ is also landing on your website.

Whenever a user enters a search query into Google, and visits a website, a referral tag is associated with the link of the website (also known as a UTM code). This referral tag is used by the analytics tool to understand where the user is coming from. In this case, the interaction will fall under the ‘organic’ category.

If the user is coming from a link shared publicly through a social media platform, the interaction will fall under the ‘social traffic’ category.

Direct traffic refers to the number of users that manually enter your URL into the address bar to reach to your website.

Dark traffic, on the other hand, is the traffic that an analytics tool wrongly categorises as direct traffic, usually because the origin of the traffic is unknown.

When the user clicks on a link shared through email or a messenger app such as Whatsapp, the analytics tool usually registers it as direct traffic. Let’s look at the sources of dark traffic in a bit more detail.

Dark Traffic: The Origins

While an analytics tools may not be able to detect the source of dark traffic, a few of the known sources are:

Links sent through Gmail
Links shared on personal chat on social media, such as the Facebook Messenger or Instagram Direct Message
Links shared through emails sent using an email client such as Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird Mail
Sessions during which the user is using incognito or private mode of a browser.
Sessions that start through an in-app search feature or a phone search feature.

Dark Traffic: The Significance

So now we know what dark traffic is, and where is it coming from. But why even bother? If the traffic is already coming to your website, why fix something that isn’t broken? Right?

Wrong.

To begin with, the amount of dark traffic on the web is a lot more than marketers usually realise. To put this into perspective, GroupOn, during a very risky experiment, realised that 60% of their ‘direct traffic’ was actually organic traffic originating from search engines.

Another research shows that 77% of ALL the content being shared online is shared through ‘Dark Social’ channels, or social media personal messengers.

Understanding dark traffic will help you better understand how your audience is spreading the word about your business, and how you can maximise this effect.

Almost all the dark traffic reaching your website is the result of someone personally and consciously sharing your content or your website personally with another individual.

Understanding who these users are, and what kind of content or offers (or whatever they are sharing) they like, can help you make informed business decisions that drive more efficient results.

For instance, if a user shared a video produced by your brand, you can produce more similar videos to gauge their interest. Chances are, when they stumble upon your fresh video, they will at least engage with it, if not share it again.

Dark Traffic: The Pursuit

While it remains true that there is no definitive way to track dark traffic, webmasters can take steps to convert dark traffic into easily quantifiable traffic:

List out all the URLs of all the webpages of your website. Next, filter out of shorter URLs such as your homepage URL. Basically, filter out any URLs that you are sure that a user may remember and enter into the browser directly. Finally, attach an UTM code to all the remaining URLs. Different UTM codes can be assigned to different sources of dark traffic. For instance, for all traffic coming from email clients, the UTM code will be different from the traffic coming from messenger applications.
Here’s what an UTM code looks like:
[1]

“Direct Traffic” coming to longer URLs, the ones no one can possibly remember and type, should automatically be categorised under “dark traffic”.
When you publish any fresh content, make sure it is accompanied by prominent social sharing buttons. If a user spots these, chances are they will find using the social sharing buttons more efficient than copying the URL and sending it to their friends.
Use URL shorteners. Services like Bit.ly offer separate tracking on the URLs shortened through their tool, which makes it incredibly easy to track all the traffic coming from a specific set of URLs.
Dark Traffic: Making The Most Of It

After the above-mentioned steps, you once again have dependable data of your traffic sources. This intelligence can now be used to make the most of the dark traffic coming to your website.

Here are just a few ways you can begin:

Once you have identified users from dark traffic, use retargeting ads to bring them back to your website. When you know your users, it is also possible to create a personalised experience that they will love!
After you have started analysing the dark traffic, pay attention to the content assets that are driving this traffic. Using this knowledge, create more relevant content that the same users may find entertaining or actionable. When a user realises that your website is consistently churning out content that is relevant to them, you’ll soon be attracting repeat visitors that will recommend your website to their friends.
Encourage sharing within the body of the content. While social sharing buttons work great in this aspect, when an engaged reader is instructed to share the content, along with a good reason to do it, they will logically be more inclined to share it.

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