This one’s for Vanessa, who pointed me at this article. The claim is that a major part of web traffic (up to some 69%!) comes from social sharing that happens outside the well-known networks like facebook, google+, or twitter, and that this behaviour actually predates what we now call “the social web”. But how do we measure it and what can analytics contribute to a better understanding of this “dark social”?
First thing I would point out is that we need to make a difference between the social web and people being social with or without technology. The early web was not a social space as we know it today. Yet, we used non-browser-based applications to communicate and share links by e-mail, netmeeting, Messenger or ICQ, as well as chatrooms. And we still do! A great deal! These do not (yet) show in referral analytics and hence they can be called personal, direct, or “dark”, which mostly means person-to-person. It’s a digital word of mouth propagation as opposed to broadcasting or spamcasting that happens in social and other sites. Technically, however, there is no reason for skype or any other desktop application to not provide analytics information, and with the majority of folks now on a webmail service, it seems merely a matter of time and implementation.
Historically speaking, the “Web” wasn’t social in the early days as its applications and protocols were distinguished more decidedly from say ftp, gopher, smtp, and so forth. Dedicated channels were used to map our social needs onto. Thanks to an explosion of webapps and cloud services, in today’s sloppy jargon “web” is used for everything that “connects”.
What’s different with the social web today is the transparency and interconnectedness with which link sharing, web traffic and social activities happen. Instead of personal messaging, many people send links to groups of people (friends), even when they know it’s only relevant to a few. “Likes” and +1′s integrate the dissemination of re-shares much better and, most of all, easier.
When looking at my own web stats, which I pondered over in another posting, what strikes me is the amount of spidering that goes on. This is the real “dark social”, since it makes my posts and links go places they’ve never been before (including some rather dodgy sites). This now seems to account for more traffic volume than RSS subscriptions. Integrated analytics that captures the actual consumption of my content, be it on my own site, on aggregators, or on pinterest/paperli-type pages is still lacking. For all I know, one person liked my stuff and re-shared it with an audience I can only guess at.
Finally, there is much more technical integration than we usually acknowledge. Thanks to notification services, I actually accessed the said article, to which Vanessa referred me, from my e-mail, not from the social network where she posted it. So it would be wrong to assume that all social sharing that falls into the dark social space was unrelated to social networks.
In summary, it is probably more astounding that social networks within only a few years account for nearly a third of web referrals. In this, they’ve clearly run a dent into the importance of e-mail and other traditional channels in the dissemination of stuff. Maybe it is precisely this notion of the traditional ways of sharing becoming legacy behaviour, which hitherto stopped better analytics in this area. However, in the interconnected web we live in, content-based rather than address-based analytics would seem to be the way forward, including aggregated data of third-party consumption at remote re-share sites.