By Andrew Eklund | October 16, 2012
Please bear with me today. Today’s Post Chaos is rather geeky, but I can’t stress enough its importance. We may all be sitting on a goldmine of intelligence and revenue, so once you’ve read this and scratched your head saying, “What the hell is he talking about?” then forward to your geek and tell him or her to look into what I’m about to explain about “Dark Social.”
Today, I write with much enthusiasm that a major discovery in the world of the Web may be occurring right now. Do you remember when scientists found the Higgs boson or “The God Particle”? Do you remember that time when Felix Baumgartner jumped from a spacecraft from 24 miles above the earth? (OK. End the hyperbole now.)
Over the weekend, Alexis Madrigal, a writer and employee (and geek) for The Atlantic magazine, decided to run an experiment with his Web data. He felt he was seeing a disproportionate amount of Web traffic being considered “direct traffic,” otherwise the traffic that gets to a Web site unassisted by a campaign and is entered directly as a home page Web address (like ciceron.com or tcbmag.com). When you do that, you got there on your own—not from Facebook, or Twitter, or another source.
Your website’s analytics contain many other pages that count as “direct traffic.” The problem is, most deep links to your content are very complex URLs—something no human would ever type. Take the URL for The Atlantic article itself: www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/ No one would ever type that.
Madrigal’s theory is that direct traffic is coming from sources the Web analytics programs cannot track properly, and therefore the world of person-to-person sharing is not accounted for. Maybe you forwarded it through Gmail, Yahoo, or some other e-mail account. Or maybe as a chat. Or a mobile link. None of this shows up in your reports. Hence, the “Dark Social” metaphor. And we think it’s potentially a huge missing link in everything digital.
For example, I asked you in the first paragraph to share this blog post with your geeks. If you do so and they visit this page, that’s not accounted for anywhere. Say you and your golf buddies are planning a golf trip. You send them a link to a Web page for a resort that’s running a special. The resort won’t be able to tell if that Web traffic that converted 10 rooms for a long weekend is attributed to you doing them a favor for free or the $250,000 television campaign they ran. Believe me, the TV people are happy to take credit.
Perhaps the best way to see the significance of Dark Social is to take a peek at Madrigal’s own analysis of The Atlantic’s traffic:
“[Y]ou have this previously unmeasured darknet that’s delivering 56.5 percent of people to individual stories. This is not a niche phenomenon! It’s more than 2.5x Facebook’s impact on the site.“
This is a big deal. Billions of dollars of your money are at stake in media spend against this elusive metric of “direct traffic.” So over the weekend, I sent the link to my staff with the title, “Super Important!” Of course, none of those referrals will show up in analytics either. We’re digging into this, and I’ll follow up with our conclusions. Let me know in the comments what your geeks are telling you.