Koozai > Blog > Dark Search and Dark Social – What You Need to Know

Dark Search and Dark Social – What You Need to Know

| 7 minutes to read

bigstock-Death-in-the-hood-concept-30103358When (not provided) keywords started growing in Google Analytics, things started to look grim. But SEOs found a way through the problem and persevered. And then, just as one dark cloud passes, another follows in its wake. Dark search and dark social have been topics of discussion since late last year, but now we are seeing increasing effects. Are we facing a data depression? Only one thing’s for sure – Star Wars references. Lots of Star Wars references. Welcome to the Dark Side…

(Note – I just couldn’t bring myself to squeeze in the Star Wars gags. ‘Disturbance in the Force’ this, ‘much to learn have we’ that. But if you like that sort of thing, check out these SEO Jokes by our Chris!)

What Is It?

Dark social and dark search sound very impressive and ominous, but what do they mean?

Dark social refers to website visits that appear as direct traffic in Google Analytics, but are actually socially shared. As examples, URLs shared by text messaging, personal emails or instant messaging services like Skype will have no referring information passed when clicked. Visits within certain mobile apps can get the same treatment. So Google Analytics will record these visits as direct, even though they are social in origin. It’s a problem that has been around for a while, but hasn’t been all too prolific or problematic until being compounded by dark search.

Dark search is a little more worrying in that it’s a relatively new phenomenon: organic search traffic that is presented as direct traffic. Direct traffic doesn’t necessarily mean that the URL was typed directly into the browser’s address bar. Google Analytics will lump any unknown traffic source into the direct source category. With dark social thrown into the mix, it makes for a lot of unaccountable data.

But how is it possible for organic search traffic to suddenly drop into a void of unknown sources? Google knows those visits came from Google, right?

The Google Giveth – The Google Taketh Away

In the case of (not provided), Google Analytics knows that the visit came from organic search but the keyword data is not provided to you. So you still get the visit tracked as being organic in its source, but you don’t get any lovely keyword information. But at least you know where it came from – so you can start piecing together search term possibilities from landing pages (see Emma’s post on surviving (not provided) keywords). But with dark search – nothing is tracked. Google doesn’t know. It’s both a technical issue and privacy issue involving two widely used browsers, but not necessarily limited to them.

When iOS 6 was released for Apple’s horde of mobile devices, the native Safari browsing app had a silent update to its inner workings. Any iOS 6 users visiting a site via organic search cannot be tracked by cookie-based analytics software and so these visits are shown as direct. The other main offender, Firefox, has had analytics software blocking plugins for some time, but newer versions seem to be withholding the origins of a visit by default.

So this time, it looks like Google isn’t the one keeping data under wraps; they’re getting the silent treatment too. What Google can or will do remains to be seen but if they lose control of the data in Analytics, things won’t look good. Mobile use is only growing and Apple mobile devices are everywhere, with more to come. Firefox is an extremely popular and capable browser with enhanced privacy and security features. The big G can’t expect others to change privacy policies when they themselves have denied access to keywords with (not provided) data.

Symptoms and Evidence

The most obvious symptom is that direct traffic is climbing up and up, month on month – which would be great if it were true, but we know that’s not the whole picture. The knock on effect is that organic traffic figures, which can fall proportionately, become skewed too. Numbers become diluted and we lose a grip on real data – or at least ways of getting it easily.

To demonstrate the rise in direct traffic, here are two graphs from Google Analytics, plotting weekly direct visits since the iOS6 update:

Google Analytics iOS Direct Traffic
The graph above shows the rise in direct visits from iOS devices since the update.
 Firefox Direct Traffic in Google Analytics
This graph shows the increase in direct visits from Firefox browsers, taken over the same period.

The most telling thing about the Firefox figures is that top of the charts for direct visits is version 20.0 of the browser, which has only been officially available since April 2nd 2013 – where direct traffic from the browser peaks.

So can we blame the new dark horses in the race for all of this new direct traffic? Well, no. We can’t really blame anything after making initial observations. If we dig a little deeper and look at the landing pages, we can make some safe assumptions though. As the data we can access becomes more diluted with every new obstacle, we’re going to have to figure out new ways of getting what we need out of it.

Finding Solutions

So how can we help ourselves find meaning in the numbers? We can start with obvious falsities in direct traffic, like long, symbol filled URIs – it’s highly unlikely that these were typed into the browser’s address bar directly. Some might have been copied and pasted in, but again it’s unlikely when hyperlinks are available. Logic tells us that the majority must have come from a ‘dark’ source. You can’t tell if it’s a social share, an in-app visit or from a search, but you can look at historical data for landing pages and see if there’s any correlations that you can apply to make educated guesses.

Over at Gravity Search Marketing, they have created two useful Google Analytics solutions which they have shared in a blog post (where they discuss dark social a little more). With some tailored refinements, you could apply them more to suit your own site, but this isn’t a perfect solution by any means. But it can help us pick away at falsely labelled direct traffic.

Dark Social – Is Tracking It Enough?

With Google Analytics set up, dark sources can be identified and we can track and quantify it to an extent. But what about addressing the problem head on? I’ve thought of a couple of ways we might be able to boost our real knowledge by making it easier to share via these means, so people won’t resort to using long-winded, dark sharing methods:

  • Alternative social sharing buttons for mobile users

It’s not every day you get a URL in a text message (although I do seem to send and receive a lot!) but then if people had the option to, maybe they’d use it more. Presenting mobile users with an option to share by SMS and tracking it as an event in Google Analytics could help knock that problem out – it could also reintroduce an old way of sharing with a new twist. Most mobile browsers offer this already – but having the option on page could be the key to more data.

  • Email buttons – bring back the old days

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ icons are commonplace, but ‘Email This’ buttons seem to have gone out of style. It might be time for a reboot. Again, with event tracking, we can shed some light on email shares and pick out more dark social data from them.

  • Instant messaging integration

It wouldn’t be too difficult to offer an IM sharing button – that copies and pastes a URL into your open instant messaging platform. You could track that button as an event or use a custom URI for instant message shares.

Giving people more sharing options is not always the answer, but you could limit the options depending on the device used – mobile users only get SMS options, desktop and tablet users get IM buttons and so on.

Dark Times Ahead?

It feels like we SEOs are being robbed of the data we crave so much. It’s easy for panic to set in and to start making statements like ‘SEO is dead’ when all we need to do is filter a little more, look a little harder and try a few new things.

SEO is not as easy now as it was in the days of yore. But it’s about a million times more interesting because of that. I don’t think that ‘the dark times’ are coming. I think the opposite is true – SEO seems to have become more enlightened and honest as an industry, with a community of great thinkers driving it forward. So let’s forge ahead with new ideas and work out new ways to get our data and results – no matter how dark it gets.


Death in the hood concept from Bigstock



  1. Gareth avatar

    Good post, Ali. I’d challenge SEOs not to venture back into hypothesis and vagueness because of the lack of data – it’s what has got SEOs such a bad reputation in the past. As you say, we’ve got to find ways of getting our hands on meaningful data!

    1. Ali Moghadam avatar

      Thanks Gareth,

      You’re right, nobody ever guesses their way out of a problem (not every time anyway!). The data’s there, it’s just hidden. I think tracking events is the way forward for total accuracy, but if privacy and browser development sways drastically into the covert end of the spectrum, it might be for nothing.

      I think there needs to be more transparency from browser developers and Google (and other analytics software developers) on data retrieval and privacy, but people are rarely chomping at the bit to help marketers and corporations. I’d imagine more users would opt out if they had the choice.

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