What is “Dark Traffic” and What Should You Do About It?

What is “Dark Traffic” and What Should You Do About It?

Dark traffic is the problem. I’m going to show you how to fix the dark traffic problem you didn’t even know you had. Direct traffic is one of the primary referring sources of traffic to your site. It’s loosely defined as the number of people who type in your URL directly into the search bar. We like organic search and SEO traffic, but it’s not the same thing as Direct traffic. How to Identify the Dark Traffic on Your Site Right Now The hard-working people at The Atlantic discovered that 25% of their traffic was dark traffic, leaving them no real way to know where these people truly came from. You’re going to start by creating a new segment inside Google Analytics to isolate the dark traffic on your site. First, let’s identify the Direct traffic visitors. This easy-to-use form asks for nothing but the URL of your page, the campaign source of the link, and any of the other four campaign categories you would like to include in your new URL. Then start using the Google URL builder, Chrome extension, or some other tool like Terminus to make sure that all of your campaign links are being tagged properly before going live.

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dark traffic

Google Analytics is supposed to help you figure out what’s working and what’s not.

It’s supposed to help you determine which campaigns are succeeding and which sources of traffic are delivering the best bang for your buck.

And it’s supposed to help you, personally, get the credit you deserve for devising strategies and tactics to deliver on your objectives.

Unfortunately, it might not be doing any of those things right now.

For example, years ago The Atlantic found that 25% of their visitor traffic was unaccounted for and unexplained. They literally had no idea where it was coming from and why it was happening.

The exact same thing is probably happening on your website right now.

Dark traffic is the problem. It’s giving you faulty information that you’re using to make big (and probably expensive) decisions. And it’s taking away from your own personal success.

Being ‘data driven’ is only good if your data is accurate. Which in many cases, it’s not.

I’m going to show you how to fix the dark traffic problem you didn’t even know you had.

But first, we need to define it, and how it happens so, you know exactly what to watch out for (and what’s at stake).

What is Dark Traffic?

Before you can understand ‘dark traffic,’ you need to understand what Direct traffic is and how it’s defined.

Direct traffic is one of the primary referring sources of traffic to your site.

It’s loosely defined as the number of people who type in your URL directly into the search bar. So they bypass Google, remembering your domain off the top of their head, and key it in before hitting Enter.

I say ‘loosely defined,’ because that’s what it’s supposed to be in theory. However, that’s not always what happens in reality.

For example, Direct traffic should usually be responsible for around 10-20% of your site’s overall sessions according to Link-Assistant.com, Aleh Barysevich. That means only around 10-20% of the people hitting your site will remember your domain.

But that’s not what happens. Instead, it’s often more common to see something like this:

Direct traffic should be around 20% of your site’s traffic max, and yet in this example, it’s nearly double that at 38%!

What gives?!

The remaining 18 – 28% is ‘dark traffic.’ It’s technically from somewhere else (email, social, paid campaign, etc.) but being misclassified as Direct.

Here’s what’s going on.

Those of us loyal to The Onion are likely to type www.theonion.com into our search bar, resulting in a high level of direct traffic to the site’s homepage.

image 81

That’s totally normal human behavior.

However, the probability that even the most dedicated reader would type out something like http://www.theonion.com/article/gaunt-sickly-kirby-takes-leave-absence-video-games-56385 is considerably lower, if not nonexistent.

image 79

In other words, you should expect almost zero Direct traffic to this page. There’s no way people are actually typing that in from memory.

Here’s how it gets misreported.

Analytics packages look at referral data when deciding which ‘bucket’ to categorize a new session. That information often gets stripped away when using desktop or mobile programs.

So all those links you click on from Outlook, Apple Mail, Slack, etc.? They’re contributing to your problem.

Especially when those links go untagged with extra parameters that tell an Analytics program where they’re explicitly coming from. (I’ll show you how to do this in a few minutes.)

Think about the ramifications of this for a second.

Dark traffic is essentially being overreported. Which means other channels, like paid, email, or social, are being underreported.

That’s a problem. It means that those channels aren’t getting the credit they deserve for driving those new visitors and customers. Which in turn means that you, dear marketer, are not getting the credit you deserve, either.

This obviously isn’t a great problem to have, but how big of a deal is it? In an effort to answer that question, Groupon decided to put its tracking tool to the test.

How Groupon Discovered that 60% of their Direct Traffic Should be SEO

Groupon knew they had a problem. They just weren’t sure how big the problem was.

So they decided to run a little experiment to find out.

They deindexed their site for half a day to better understand where their visitors were coming from.

Note that you should not try this at home.

By deindexing themselves from Google, they could effectively rule out SEO traffic by seeing a massive drop-off from their normal level of visitors throughout the day.

direct vs organic traffic 600x508 edited

Here’s what they were looking for specifically.

It would be completely natural for Direct visits to the homepage and other key pages (like Groupon Getaways) to remain high during this search blackout. These pages have relatively short, memorable domains like www.groupon.com/getaways.

image 84

So that’s easy enough to remember!

They then compared what happened on their individual deal pages which typically featured long, complex URL strings instead. These pages shouldn’t see any Direct traffic (relatively speaking) because people wouldn’t memorize each one.

image 74

Instead, it’s much more likely they found that page from somewhere else and clicked on a link to be referred to it.

Now let’s go back to that original image from Groupon’s findings to see what they discovered.

You’ll see their findings in orange. The purple line represents the results recorded by a tracking tool for a day just one week before the site was deindexed.

By now, you’ve probably spotted the difference. Groupon noted a much lower influx of both organic search and direct traffic from 13:00 to 16:00 than had been reported the week before.

Organic search nearly zeroed out in this time period, whereas direct traffic decreased by 60%, but neither one of these drops were noted by the tracking tool.

But think about that for a moment. Direct traffic decreased by 60%, all of a sudden, without warning. When in reality, if it was truly only tracking people typing in the URL, that shouldn’t have changed.

Instead, that 60% drop in traffic was being miscategorized. It should have been organic search or SEO traffic instead.

We like organic search and SEO traffic,…

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