What is Dark Traffic & How to Identify It!

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Just like everything else, Google Analytics data too has a dark side that every online marketer needs to be aware of! The data flaw, known as “dark traffic”, is hard to identify as it lies deep under the layers of thousands of marketing activities that happen every second.

Before get deep into the topic, let us first discuss what dark traffics is! And for this, one has to get deep into the Analytics. Most of the online marketing efforts are aimed at increasing traffic on a website and this is done in different ways. The most common of them are 1) direct referrals and 2) diverted traffic through ads.

For instance, you want to buy a product from a certain website. So you simply click the site’s url and buy the product. This is direct traffic.

Now, consider reading an article on the web and you read about a certain product and click on the hyperlinked text and get directed to the site where the product is being sold. This becomes diverted traffic as you have been diverted from one site to the other.

Generally, a website needs to get at 10% to 20% of its whole traffic through direct referrals. Otherwise, the site is considered to have a poor reach and it should work on building its awareness. However, if the incoming traffic through direct referrals is too high then the website may be having dark traffic.

Dark traffic is the incoming traffic that arrives from an unidentified URL. Thought analytics programs include it under direct traffic, the root source of the traffic may not be tracked. This is because the traffic lacks proper referrer string of the original source.

Some sources of “dark traffic”

There are quite a lot of source that brings dark traffic including –

  • Mobile apps (Whatsapp, Hangout, Facebook Messenger & Hike): Dark traffic from them is growing quickly. For instance, the traffic coming in through social media apps do not show up as an app referral. As most of the app use in-app browser which can’t be tracked.
  • Email: The URLs shared in emails don’t have the source data.
  • Secure sites (HTTPS): The source data tailed to the traffic coming from these sites is often lost.

A business owner or an online marketer may not be certain about each and every direct visit to the website is from a user who has entered the URL or by accessing a bookmark. At the same time, they can’t figure out if their marketing efforts are successful or not. Some visits because of these efforts may be lost to this dark side.

Why should you care about dark traffic?

Well, though most people are still on the dark side about dark traffic, Groupon conducted an experiment to reveal the inconsistency created by dark traffic. The company tried to examine the differences between organic search and direct traffic.

After deindexing their site completely, by screening their incoming traffic based a specific location (like “Hotels in California”), they found some significant answers. They picked the traffic stream which usually doesn’t get a lot of direct traffic – not all users actually type it out. During this test, the company also identified that there was a huge difference because of the browser type. While most reliable traffic was from desktop-based referrals, there was a significant misrepresenting for direct traffic through Internet Explorer.

As an online marketer, one should be worried about dark traffic because it makes it difficult to know if the marketing efforts are working or not. Because of these misrepresented traffic statistics and levels from different sources, it becomes hard to evaluate online marketing efforts. Thus, a marketer doesn’t know what needs to be changed or how to enhance an ongoing campaign. This will, in turn, lead to bad decision making at a strategic marketing level.

Dark traffic is also the main reason why channels such as search, apps, email marketing, are not getting the credit they actually deserve.

Dealing with dark traffic!

There are three ways to do so –

  1. UTM Parameters: This is the probably the best way to gain control of dark traffic. Just tag all the links on campaigns or content using Google UTM parameters. This will solve the issue.

The UTM codes are simple parameters that are added at the end of a URL. The parameters tag extra information regarding the link.

Some of the codes are –

  • Campaign Source (utm_source): It gives search engine, social network or email campaign information.
  • Campaign Medium (utm_medium): It provides information about the medium like social, and email.
  • Campaign Term (utm_term): It informs whether it is from ad campaigns or paid search.
  • Campaign Content (utm_content): Provides information about the content
  • Campaign Name (utm_campaign): Provides information about the campaign/promotion.
  1. Use Google Analytics: It is unfortunate that there is no precise way to identify or prevent Google Analytics from concluding dark traffic as direct traffic. However, there are ways to estimate how much of the direct traffic is actually dark traffic.

One can identify dark traffic by looking at the landing pages for the direct traffic. The traffic report of each visit can say a lot about its source. They reveal about the traffic that is from dark traffic sources.

An advanced Analytics user who can create custom reports, can easily filter pages that may attract visitors directly to the homepage or the front pages. An advanced Analytics user can identify dark traffic by evaluating the visits left after removing landing pages from the traffic report.

Even though it is impossible to reveal the root sources of dark traffic, a marketer can easily get clues of the amount of dark traffic. Thus, they can construct their marketing strategies accordingly.

  1. Analyse campaigns: Another way is based on the previous two methods! You can analyse dark traffic by screening your existing marketing campaigns after pulling out the ‘real’ direct traffic. Though this doesn’t help much with campaigns from the past, you can surely analyse the present campaigns which boosted direct visits.

It is a little tedious but nothing is easy, right?

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