Dark Social: What It Is and Why You Should Care.


Ever written a blog article and - being so proud of your work - shared it on Facebook for all to see? Your mother (and #1 Facebook fan) loves the article. She shares it by copying the article URL from your post and sending it to her coworkers via email.

According to her, everyone loved the article. But, when you check Google Analytics, you only see one view from Facebook, and a bunch of traffic labeled “Direct.” Why?

Don’t worry - your mom isn’t lying to protect your feelings. Instead, by neglecting to hit the “share” button on Facebook, she has unknowingly participated in Dark Social.

What is Dark Social?

Dark Social refers to the social sharing of content outside of what web analytics programs can measure. In other words, because your mom didn’t share your article on social media, Google can’t track her sharing activity as “Social.” Instead, Google Categorizes it as “Direct” - the virtual “junk drawer” for web traffic Google can’t find a source for.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to engage in Dark Social by accident. For example, On mobile, apps open a link in their own separate browser or force your phone’s website browser to open a new window. Google Analytics counts this as Direct Traffic. Similarly, sharing URLs to a private chat platform like Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, or via text message is also mislabeled as Direct.

Why does it matter?

Studies estimate that Dark Social accounts for 84% of social sharing activity. That’s right - 84% of social sharing activity is untrackable and mislabeled as Direct traffic by Google. Without proper tracking, it is difficult for anyone investing in social media strategy to measure and improve tactics. Additionally, measuring ROI is pretty well out the window if you’re in the dark about where your web traffic originates.

Luckily, there are a few ways you can combat the rise of Dark Social.  

1. Find out where your direct traffic originates.

Typically, true direct traffic lands on your most easy-to-remember pages. For example, our landing page, theincubator.io, is memorable and easy to type in manually. Alternately, a link to our blog post, “7 Biggest Marketing Mistakes Made by Early Stage Startups,” is probably too long and detailed to memorize: theincubator.io/blog/biggest-marketing-mistakes-early-stage-startups-make.

In Google Analytics, you can segment all traffic labeled as Direct to find out where the Dark Social hides. By filtering out your most easily memorized URLs, you can get a sense of what kind of mislabeled social sharing happens with your links. You can find easy-to-follow instructions for this process in AdEspresso’s overview of Dark Social.

This fix won’t permanently change your Google Analytics to track dark social traffic, but it will help you determine what percentage of your traffic is due to private sharing.

2. Use Custom URLs and Shortened URLs.

Links spread via “share” buttons contain UTM tags. These tags tell Google Analytics where traffic to a link originates. To demonstrate, I customized our blog link by adding UTM tags for “Social” and “Facebook”:


Now, Google Analytics categorizes any traffic to this link as Social traffic from Facebook. The best part: this works even if mom still insists on copying and pasting a URL instead of hitting “Share.” You can create custom links like this by using Google Campaign URL Builder.

Once you’ve created your custom URLs, it’s a good idea to shorten them for sharing on social media. Bitl.ly offers customizable shortened links, while Goo.gl’s shortened links integrate with Google Analytics.  Both make much more attractive options for social sharing, and both services track link engagement.

3. Add more social buttons to your content.

Adding share buttons gives your readers more ways to share your content without accidentally resorting to Dark Social. Including buttons for sharing via email, WhatsApp and WeChat can help create a seamless experience for readers. Also, a “copy URL” button allows Google Analytics to track it as Social traffic - regardless of people share it.

You can add these buttons through website builders like Wix, Wordpress or Squarespace. Additionally, services like AddThis allow you to add share buttons with minimal coding.

While you may not be able to stop private sharing entirely, following the above strategies can help clean out your Direct traffic “junk drawer.” By including more information in your links and making it easier for users to share your content directly from your pages, you can better understand where your web traffic originates.


Samantha GrandinettiComment