Dark Social: How To Account For Private Link Sharing



Understanding where your content is being consumed will allow you to know where to hyper-focus your marketing efforts.


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Understanding the traffic around your website and online content is essential to building and tracking a marketing strategy that really works for your company. However, this analysis isn’t always straightforward, especially when it comes to dark social.

Dark social may seem daunting and untraceable to social media managers. However, it is harmless and means traffic to your links. Though dark social makes it difficult to track how your content and website pages are being shared, it still means you’re extending your reach. Still, you’ll want to know how to account for dark social and what you can do to determine the results of campaigns that have “gone dark” from your regular social media analytics.

Let’s take a look at what exactly dark social is and how you can measure it.

What is Dark Social?

Dark social refers to the links shared on private, rather than public, platforms such as Instagram Stories, Snapchat, email, SMS/text messaging, or chat apps (WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc.).

When someone shares a link privately, it becomes harder to track. This happens, for example, when someone sends an email to their friend with an article they want them to read. Your analytic tools will still show traffic to your link, but you won’t know where exactly that traffic came from. This is because the necessary tracking cookies to show referring websites are not available for dark social apps.  Hence, dark social.

The increasing popularity of smartphones has made sharing links through email and texting even more common. Think about it: before your phone was connected to the internet you probably weren’t very likely to type out the entire length of a cool website and send it your friend. But, when you are already reading an online article on your mobile phone it is very convenient to copy and paste the link into a message for your friend.

Why do I need to care about Dark Social?

The shifting attitude towards privacy has added to the rise of dark social. Many people prefer to send things via private messaging, rather than where many people can see their posts. A recent report shows that 84% of consumer’s outbound sharing now occurs through private platforms. It is no secret that the rising generation of new consumers don’t have active Facebook accounts or public Twitter accounts. Only since the increase in dark social traffic have digital marketers and businesses become more aware of the need to account for it.

Let’s say you own a car wash. If someone were to take a picture while they are getting their car washed, share the picture publicly on a platform such as Instagram, and to tag the name of your car wash, it would be relatively easy for you to find that mention.

Now imagine that that same person sends their friend a message on Whatsapp about the same car wash. The mention of the car wash brand is untrackable. Still, if the friend who had received the message about the car wash later decides they need their car wash too, and types in the name of the car wash to find the address, it is dark social in action. This is different than direct traffic because no link is shared or clicked on from a dark social platform.

Does embracing dark social mean giving up on analytics?

Not exactly. But you won’t able to simply search for “dark social traffic” with your analytic tools. Here are two other ways you can estimate how much of your traffic is coming from dark social.

Direct Traffic

Because Google Analytics can’t track dark social directly, it is normally sourced as direct traffic in your Google Analytics dashboard. Direct traffic means that someone either typed your address directly into the URL bar, or the link is untraced.

It’s highly unlikely that someone will type in your longer, more obscure website links directly into their URL bar. Therefore, you can sort through the URLs to sort the real direct traffic from the dark social traffic.

To do this using Google Analytics, click on the “direct traffic” segment.

You will then find an “Advanced” link button which you should click to add a new filter.

The first filter will default to include a page. Change “Include” to “Exclude” and then, select Page. From here, add in any specific URLs you’ve recently promoted or run campaigns for to get an overall view of the what untracked clicks you’ve received to that page. You can save this filter so that you don’t have to repeat these steps every time you want to analyze your dark social reach.

Analyze the flux of visits to this specific set of URLs in comparison to the months prior to the campaign.  The easiest way to analyze the effects of dark social are to trace any spikes in website visits that are otherwise difficult to explain, or in this case – direct links.

However, it is important to keep in mind that you’ll see spikes across the board with dark social and not just in direct traffic.  

Organic Traffic

Organic traffic, a result of people finding your website using a search engine, can also come because of dark social. Someone may receive a message from their friend on a private messaging app about a brand, but then later use Google to search for that brand their friend was talking about. Direct traffic will show that a link was clicked–directing someone straight to that URL of your website. You may see an increase in organic searches (i.e. searching for your company name) or a spike in email clicks. (Not all email clicks are considered dark, it depends on what email client the user is using.)

On public platforms, you are able to easily find mentions and tags to your brand. If you recently launched a new campaign and see a large peak in organic traffic, but few mentions or shares of that campaign in public spaces, dark social may be at work behind the scenes.

Custom Tracking Codes

Custom URL tracking codes are one way to make things easier before traffic even get to your analytics information.

Tracking codes come down to letting you customize your URL in a way that pulls referral information directly into Google Analytics with the medium and source information. You can also add details such as a campaign name.

Basically, you take your normal URL, add the medium, and campaign name if wanted, and when someone views that link (even if they receive the link in a private platform) it will be attributed to the social media channel attached to the URL. This isn’t foolproof, but it at least helps separate social media traffic from falsely-identified direct traffic.

To start making your own trackable URLs, try out Google Analytics’ Campaign URL Builder. Another option may be a part of your CRM. Popular customer relationship management (CRM) tools, such as Pardot, allow you to create traceable vanity URLs directly from your customer platform.

Share Buttons

You can also add share buttons to your links. Many sites already use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn sharing.  Make sure you have link sharing enabled for your sharing tool as well. While many people on mobile devices will use built-in sharing functionality, the more opportunity you allow a user to use your own links, the more insight you have into the number of direct link shares are going out online.

There are many tools for you to add these buttons, but one of them is ShareThis. Using ShareThis anyone can share content directly with their friends through email, text or messaging apps. The little extra effort to add sharing buttons for Whatsapp or Messenger will save you effort in the long run when it comes to analyzing your traffic.


So while dark social may take a few extra steps to analyze, in general, it’s a positive thing and nothing to be scared of. Take the time to sort your dark social traffic from the rest of your traffic using the Google Analytics tricks covered in this article, and consider using tracking codes and share buttons. Understanding where your content is being consumed will allow you to know where to hyper-focus your marketing efforts.

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