What is Dark Traffic?

“Dark traffic” is a phrase that refers to any visit to a company’s site or app that cannot be accurately attributed back to the original source.

This can cause problems for a company. It is vital for them to understand the referral journeys of their users in order to analyse and understand the traffic sources which result in the most valuable users. These learnings can then be used to aid their monetisation efforts.

When traffic is dark, the company cannot see where a user has come from. The referral source is often all grouped into one big “Direct Traffic” category lump instead. This problem is magnified on mobile because of its socially driven nature, making it easy to copy-paste a link into your chat app of choice.

Where Does Dark Traffic it Come From?

There are a number of user journeys that are typically defined as “dark”:

  • Users sharing links over messaging and chat apps, or email. This is often referred to as “dark social”
  • Any user originating from sites such as Duck Duck Go that aim to protect the user’s privacy
  • Any journey that takes the user from a secure HTTPS connection to a HTTP connection
  • Any user that has come from an image search
  • Any user that has come from a non-web based file such as a document or PDF

Dark Traffic Could be on the Rise

A recent report from ad platform RadiumOne reported that 82% of content shared on mobile is shared through messaging, email or text. This is up from 50% two years ago.

Unfortunately for companies who are looking for transparency, dark social is on the rise. This can largely be attributed to the ever-increasing prominence of messaging apps. As anxiety builds around privacy, especially after Apple’s run in with the FBI earlier this year, more and more of these messaging apps are incorporating end-to-end encryption, which pretty much rules out any hope of developing attribution in this area.

It is likely that dark traffic will continue to rise, and maybe become even more complicated in the near future. There are a couple of reasons for this, centred on the fast evolution of mobile and its user behaviour.

Firstly, Apple’s introduction of the new capabilities for Spotlight Search last year opened up a completely new channel for referral. These could not only refer users to either the web or app, but from a variety of locations: Spotlight, Safari and Siri.

Sadly, although Apple provided guidance on the optimisation of these results through structured schema and metadata, we were given no tools to track the effects of this source.

The introduction of new technologies such as Apple Search opens apps and sites up to completely new methods of acquisition at a time where the app stores find themselves saturated. It is difficult to prioritise resources, however, without any visibility on these sources – which is not only confusing for brands and companies, but also bad for Apple who are likely to see a lower uptake in the technology until they offer more visibility and incentive.

The second reason for the continued rise in dark traffic is voice search. While voice search has risen to 10% of all search volume globally (which equates to about 50 billion searches a month), data on referrals from voice searches is currently not provided by Google.

As Googler Gary Illyes points out, voice search presents a unique problem because of its conversational nature. The length of the query tends to be much longer with voice search than traditional typed searches, and the search tends to be much more long tail, which causes problems in aggregating data to get meaningful results.

Another feature of conversational voice search is that they tend to be “chained” – for example, a question that leads to the target site or app may be a result of the fragmented query “when was it?”. Without the context of the whole conversation, the app or site will not be able to learn anything from the data. This again makes it difficult to aggregate. This problem will become more prominent this year, as Apple open up Siri to third party apps.

Watch out for Part 2 of our dark traffic blogs, which will tell you what you can do about it to make your app’s user journeys less mysterious. Keep an eye out for it and you won’t be kept in the dark for much longer.

 

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Read more from Megan: A Merging of Worlds: Discovering App and Web Content and Deep-Linking is Getting Even Smarter