Dark Traffic – what is it?

Dark Traffic How it affects your web analytics

Dark Traffic?

Dark traffic is traffic that is mislabeled by analytics engines such as Google Analytics. This means that if a click came from Social Media, or directly from a Search Engine your analytics will classify it as Direct traffic and not Social or Organic as it actually should be.

Direct is the default for analytics programs. If it does not know where the traffic came from it will default to direct – which can be very misleading. This can make it look as though you are getting hundreds or thousands of people directly putting your URL into browser – which may not be true. In actuality you may be getting those clicks from multiple sources – making it hard to track and optimize each channel.

Note: As a benchmark I looked into NetClimber’s dark traffic. So far in 2017 approximately 9.54% of our traffic is unaccounted for dark traffic. In my opinion, less than 10% is completely acceptable and is nothing to be worried about. 

What does it mean?

Essentially it means that instead of traffic being labeled as coming from organic search results it says someone came directly from your website, without being referred from anywhere else.

Now for the average small business owner does this have an effect? No. It does however become a factor for large websites. Groupon first brought significant attention to the idea of dark traffic as they noticed that roughly 60% of their direct traffic was actually mislabeled organic traffic. For a website that size it could result in millions of visits per year being mistaken for direct traffic. If they are not sure where their traffic is coming from they could be making investment decisions based on inaccurate data.

For a small business however, it could result in under (or over) estimating the importance of a particular channel. 150 – 200 dark sessions per month on a site that receives 1,000 sessions per month could significantly alter decisions about SEO, Social, Email, or PPC marketing efforts. This type of traffic is not something to worry about in small numbers, however, it is something website owners need to be aware of.

Note: Google analytics is not perfect – and it never claims to be. This is simply meant to inform users that their data is not absolute and everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

What causes Dark Traffic?

There are many things that can cause traffic to be dark. Some of the most common include:

  • Clicking a link from a secure (HTTPS) to a non-secure (HTTP) page
  • Clicking links from mobile apps (including many social apps)
  • Clicking a link from an email program (Slack, Outlook, or Apple Mail)
  • Clicking on links in Instant Messengers
  • Clicking on links improperly tagged in digital documents or emails
  • User clicked through a URL shortener

How can we tell if Dark Traffic or simply Direct?

The easiest way to tell if traffic is dark is to see which pages your direct traffic is going to. If it is your homepage – there is a good chance that someone did in fact type that into the address bar; however, if it is a page that with a long URL such as netclimberwebdesign.com/pricing/pro-active-maintenance-monitoring-response-package, the likelihood of someone remembering that, let alone typing it in – are slim to none.

You might want to say next – what about bookmarks? I would counter that by asking – why would someone want to bookmark the above page? I mean I think our website is awesome and wouldn’t be opposed, however, this is simply a product page – it is something that you will look at once, maybe twice before deciding whether or not you are going to buy the package.

Landing Page & Source Review

To see which pages are getting the most direct traffic (without using segmentation) you can do the following:

Click Behaviour > Site Content > All Pages

Dark Traffic analysis - low level analytics

Click Secondary Dimension > Acquisition > Source / Medium

Dark Traffic analysis - low level analytics - non segmentation

Sort by Source / Medium (you can do this by simply clicking on the header of the column)

Now you can scroll through the direct traffic your website is receiving – making sure to ignore your main or easy-to-remember URL’s.

Note: This is simply to give you an idea of the dark traffic – as mentioned before this will probably not affect your website enough to have to deal with it. If you do want to get into the nitty-gritty however, I suggest using segmentation.


For a more thorough analysis of Dark Traffic follow the following steps to segment your data to only include Dark Traffic.

Click Segment > +New Segment

Segmenting Dark Traffic

Click Traffic Sources > Add (direct) to the Source field

Segmenting Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Next, Click Conditions > Change “Include” to “Exclude” > Change “Ad Content” to “Landing Page” > Change “Contains” to “is one of” > Add your easy to remember URL’s such as home “/” and “/payment/”

Removing commonly used pages in google analytics

Voila! Now you have segmented your Dark Traffic from your regular traffic – now you can go through and see exactly what your traffic is doing on your site.



If you have any questions about your websites analytics or need some help analyzing your dark traffic please contact us and we would be glad to help!

Building Successful Web Strategies

Building Successful Web Strategies