What is dark social traffic? Shedding light on your emerging referral sources

We field a fair amount of questions about dark social traffic, otherwise known as the visitors that land on your site with no referral information. Referral attribution is an important piece of any content strategy — and knowing where and how audiences find you most, particularly as mobile direct traffic eclipses desktop and new platforms emerge.

Therefore, we thought we’d answer three common questions surrounding dark social so that you can shed further light on your referral sources.

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What is dark social traffic?

When we discuss dark social today, we’re no longer exclusively talking about social media. It encompasses traffic that likely comes from a known source (i.e., personal email, newsletters, new and popular social media platforms and messaging apps), yet lacks explicit referrer attribution because it is unable to be passed through analytics providers. More on that below. 

In Chartbeat, dark social falls under the ‘Email, apps, IM’ referrer category. Here’s why.

When you think about dark social in your efforts to improve the visitor journey to and throughout your site, this label describes instances where someone:

1. Navigated to a page on your site from another unknown page 

2. Navigated to a page on your site from an unknown mobile app


The common thread? Those visitors arrived via platforms and webpages that place a “wall” between you and referrer data to your site. Therefore, data providers would not be able to identify them outright. The good news is that our Data Science team has been dedicated to uncovering this traffic in Chartbeat.

(Related: A Chinese news app is quietly referring millions of pageviews — here’s how global publishers can take advantage)

Why not categorize dark social as direct traffic? 

Our definition of dark social may lead you to believe it is synonymous with direct traffic rather than its own category. However, we see it associated with very different visitor behaviors: 

1. In direct visits, we’ve found that users who navigate directly to your homepage or other landing pages are typically heading over to your site via browser bookmarks or by simply typing your domain name into the browser’s URL bar.

2. In contrast, direct social visits consist of users directly referred via a link from some unknown platform or website that does not permit the transfer of referrer data in the network request to your site, as we mention above.

(Related reading: FAQ: Chrome 80 browser update and Chartbeat

How can I uncover the sources of dark social referrals?

One of the best ways to get to the bottom of your dark social traffic is UTM codes, which you can amend to your page URLs. This helps you track clicks to your site, including your various promotion channels. In Chartbeat, you can use our UTM tracking capabilities to view these traffic insights in our Real-time Dashboard and Advanced Queries tool, which we explain below.

Real-time Dashboard

It’s no secret that newsletters have emerged as a major channel used by publishers to connect with loyal audiences, so understanding their interactions can inform future promotion strategies. Here’s how:

1. The newsletter data from your email provider tells you that those readers tend to be your most loyal. Therefore, when you see the stories that resonate most with loyal audiences in Chartbeat, you now have a custom curation tool for future issues.

2. A second use case speaks to your audience engagement strategies. As teams spread content across more channels, monitoring engagement between organic and paid social promotion is critical. Custom parameters give you an opportunity to separate the drivers of traffic between your paid social promotions and your organic posts.

Advanced Queries

With our Advanced Queries tool, you can build a channel-by-channel performance report across your data, such as Engaged Time, Loyalty, and Recirculation. For instance, editorial teams can amend unique UTM codes to each category of their content, allowing them to build long-term promotion strategies based on those channel-specific reader behaviors. Additionally, a content marketing team, for instance, can use UTMs and Advanced Queries to gain a better sense of how paid media, including ad placements, are effectively reaching audiences.

Once UTM tags start coming through to Chartbeat, they’ll show up in your Dashboard, which you can see through the toggle above. More information on our Advanced Queries tool can be found here.

Note: Your content management system (e.g. HubSpot, Marketo) may include custom UTM code tools. If that’s not the case, Google offers a free UTM builder.

Key takeaways: Your dark social traffic data

As new referral sources emerge, we’ll continue to see a rise in dark social traffic across our global network. The good news is that we’re working with organizations around the world to identify and properly attribute them in Chartbeat so that they’re no longer shrouded in mystery. 

In the meantime, take a few moments to get reacquainted with UTMs here and contact us if you have further questions about the other ways we help you uncover that traffic to inform your audience engagement strategies.

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