Web analytics provide as many questions as answers it seems. Email open rates are susceptible to error owing to counting pixels not loading. Session definitions are critical. Domain and cross-domain traffic monitoring adds complexity. Despite all this, measuring interactions from the social Web seemed the most straightforward — referrals from Twitter, Facebook, and other social players were all pretty well identified and easy to categorize. Yet we have a lot of deep traffic our analytics engines categorize as “direct” — that is, there was no clear referrer.
So the question emerged: Where is all that “direct” traffic coming from?
Late last week, Alexis Madrigal posted a fascinating set of ideas on the Atlantic, speculating that much of the direct traffic is coming from social media we haven’t categorized as “social” but which is social — email shares, bookmark shares, forums, or local hub sites (like a library landing page). Another source of this unknown traffic can be people moving from a secure (https://) site to a non-secure (http://) site.
Madrigal began thinking that all this “direct” traffic couldn’t actually be coming from people dutifully typing in long URLs — it had to be social in some way. But that idea had major implications:
This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in http://www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that’s not actually what’s happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.
Madrigal went around with this idea for a while before the analytics company the Atlantic uses — Chartbeat — made an accounting change in their analytics, creating something they called “direct social.” Traffic in this category goes deep into the site without a referrer. Their hypothesis is that somebody got this deep into the site directly by clicking on a link somewhere, not by typing it in, therefore demonstrating unmeasured (or, to use Madrigal’s term, “dark”) social traffic.
When the Atlantic’s traffic was put into this model, their “dark social” or “direct social” component proved very significant — in fact, it dwarfed the social traffic from any other source:
When the Atlantic saw nearly 57% of its social traffic coming from dark social, Madrigal asked Chartbeat to run the numbers against an aggregation of media sites. They found that 69% of the social traffic to the entire set came from so-called dark social or direct social sources.
This makes a lot of sense. Categorizing deep traffic without a referral source as “direct social” jibes well with experience and common sense. After all, how many times do you cut and paste a link into an email, send it to one or more people, or click on a similar link sent to you? With email an unreliably counted technology for direct sends and a huge backdrop technology among users who like to send links — in addition to the dribs and drabs of other possible sources for dark social traffic — my main feeling is that this is something we should have cottoned to earlier.
Madrigal extends the realization about dark social into a nice new perspective on the social Web — that is, while social media companies structured the social Web, they did not invent it; in fact, there’s a lot of old-fashioned social Web still being used and used heavily; therefore, what social media companies are providing is the ability to share but the ability to document certain shares and shortcut the sharing process for certain things:
If what I’m saying is true, then the tradeoffs we make on social networks [are] not the one[s] that we’re told we’re making. We’re not giving our personal data in exchange for the ability to share links with friends. Massive numbers of people — a larger set than exists on any social network — already do that outside the social networks. Rather, we’re exchanging our personal data in exchange for the ability to publish and archive a record of our sharing.
One other aspect of this story I like — the fact that new thinking, not new data, made this come to light. Too many times, we think more is better — more data, more articles, more, more, more. In fact, theory and thinking are undervalued in the world of analytics. You don’t need more data — you need a story to the data you have.
I think analytics vendors and staff will be spending the next few weeks integrating this idea into their reports. In the meantime, please email the link to his post to them. I want a little dark social in my life this week, too.