When traffic is misattributed within Google Analytics, it results in what is known as “dark traffic.” This happens when website visits either fail to pass referral information, or when the referral information is mislabeled. The problem with dark traffic is that it prevents webmasters and site owners from understanding where their traffic is coming from. Most marketers use this referrer data to shape their strategies based on how well specific channels are performing. Without knowing where you’re traffic is coming from, it’s difficult to effectively optimize your individual channels.
Google Analytics has redefined their acquisition channels several times over the years. Currently acquisition is broken down into five separate segments: direct, organic, social, referral, and paid. Here is how each channel is defined:
Direct – when a visitor types in your web address directly into their browser.
Organic – when a visitor clicks on a non-paid result in search engines.
Social – when a visitor clicks on a link to your site from a social media site.
Referral – when a visitor clicks on a link to your site from an external website.
Paid – when a visitor clicks on a paid ad.
Google Analytics records the referral path for each visit and buckets users accordingly. Website owners can access this information in the ‘Acquisition’ tab of their Google Analytics user dashboard. From there, they can drill down to see additional referral data related to that specific segment.
Where does dark traffic come from?
Exactly! But no, seriously… The web today has become much more nuanced, and the technology in place to help us track user behavioral patterns is struggling to keep up. When you factor in mobile, social media, messaging apps, email, and bookmarking sites, the list of possibilities seems endless. In most cases, when you hear SEOs and online marketers talk about dark traffic, they’re referring to organic and/or social traffic that’s being marked as ‘direct.’ The reason this traffic is typically mislabeled as ‘direct’ is because most analytics platforms default to the ‘direct’ bucket when urls are missing proper referrer strings.
Direct traffic varies depending on the size and popularity of the brand. If you have a very small percentage of direct traffic, you may want to consider upping your branding efforts. However, if you’re seeing an unusually high percentage of direct traffic, then you may have a dark traffic problem.
Finding the source of dark traffic
You may not be able to magically reveal the sources of your dark traffic, but there are things you can do on the reporting side to give you some ideas as to where these visits might be coming from. It’s actually easier than you might think.
Step 1 – If you notice a sharp decline in organic traffic, the first step is determining if the traffic is being misattributed, or if the decline is due to other reasons, such as a sudden drop in rankings or organic visibility. If you haven’t been tracking your rankings, you could look at Search Console to see if impressions and/or click activity correlate with the drop in traffic.
Step 2 – Once you rule out some of these other factors, you should take a deeper look at the urls within your direct traffic segment. This segment can be found within the ‘Acquisition’ tab. From there, you can exclude your homepage, and any other urls that users would likely navigate to directly. For most sites, this is a fairly short list. It’s safe to assume that most (if not all) remaining urls are dark traffic.
Step 3 – Once you identify your dark traffic, you can infer the source based on the specific urls. For instance, if blog post urls show traffic patterns that correlate with the dates/times that they were shared on social media, chances are that these visits were coming from social media apps. If the traffic correlates with an email blast you deployed recently, then the visits most likely came from email.
Dark traffic isn’t as scary as it sounds
Dark traffic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there is plenty of dark traffic that results in conversions and sales. The main issue with dark traffic is that it makes it more difficult for marketers to see how their campaigns are performing independently. Now with emerging search products like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant, we can expect traffic attribution to become a much more complicated issue, making it more important than ever to ensure that all referrer data is as accurate as possible.
If you have any questions about dark traffic or traffic attribution in general, or if you need help setting up or navigating your Google Analytics account, send us a message and we’ll be in touch.
Image by Flickr User N Med