How to Get a Handle on Your Dark Traffic

As a publisher, you would like to know where your traffic is coming from, and you’d like to know as much as possible about each visitor. But Atlantic admits that it doesn’t know where approximately 40% of its traffic comes from, and the Guardian cannot account for 7-8%.The Guardian’s website is being swamped by unidentifiable “dark traffic”, and executives at the company cannot figure out where it is coming from.

Unfortunately, with the shifts from desktop to mobile and search to social, most publishers know less than ever about where their traffic comes from. So-called dark traffic is increasing year over year while demands for better targeting on the part of agencies and brands do not allow you to ignore it.  Dark traffic makes it more difficult to prove to advertisers that you’re the right buy for them. Indeed, with programmatic, they can buy specific pages and placements automatically, so your audience data had better be convincing at a granular level.

Readers no longer come in to publisher sites through the “front door,” or home page.  Rather, they come through the side door of Facebook and Twitter links. Social has overtaken search as a way for visitors to choose what content they see. As users, we find our content through trusted recommendation engines, or through friends and colleagues more than through Google.

But then there’s all the under-the-radar sharing that takes place — on chat, messaging apps, IM and in email — outside the mainstays of the social network ecosystem. Then there are sites that are secure, which means that they don’t collect information on users. That’s the dark traffic part. “There’s a general move to people going to secure [sites], and as a general rule, when people go to secure, referral data is lost,” said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land.

Indeed, they can come through email, where links are virtually untrackable. And now, with the rise of messaging services, they can even come from WhatsApp or WeChat. It is getting more and more difficult to determine who sent you the traffic.

And many mobile apps don’t send referrals either. Facebook mobile is one of them, which makes it hard to find out how much of your traffic is coming from Facebook.

Right now, publishers have few tools they can use other than putting the social sharing buttons on their sites. But Digiday’s article on dark traffic admits,

[Publishers] already tag links that go in their email newsletters, so a publisher can tell if a visit came via a newsletter link as opposed to another source. But the tools are limited. They can watch to see if, say, a spike in mentions of their brand on a dark social platform like Instagram correlates with increased traffic to their site, but causality is hard to determine. BuzzFeed once put a WhatsApp share button on its articles, which would tell the publisher how many people clicked (although not how many people they shared the article with, or if they completed the sharing action at all).