Dark Search, Dark Social & Everything In Between #SMX

There’s an invisible web. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean the search engine can see it and attribute it correctly. The invisible web is a concept that was introduced in Chris Sherman and Gary Price’s “The Invisible Web” in 2001.

In 2013, search marketers saw a big spike in direct referral traffic. Our speaker Marshall Simmonds (@mdsimmonds), Founder and CEO, Define Media Group, Inc. explains what is causing dark search and social traffic, traffic with no referrer data in analytics. Search marketers need to protect their budget by understanding it and explaining it to non-technical people.

direct traffic spike
Spike in direct traffic in 2013

Direct traffic is a URL that comes with no referral string. An analytics tool puts all no-referrer string visits in a direct traffic bucket. This direct traffic can be segmented into three buckets: search, mobile and social.

dark search mobile social buckets

So what’s the problem with direct traffic in analytics? If you’re involved in a search or social campaign, you’re not getting all your credit because their are dark leaks in your traffic. The goal is to be able to expel that direct traffic that is affecting you negatively.

For this presentation, Simmonds looked at:

dark search and social methodoloty

Dark Search

To extract signals. Even Google is a big source of obscured data, as you’ll recall with (Not Provided). Search Console is good, it’s one part of the picture. Another big offender is comScore and the search marketshare report, year after year published with no transparency other than “hey we get this from ISP data.”

Add to this fuzzy picture the BuzzFeed shenanigans. BuzzFeed is always saying that SEO is dead, but from SimilarWeb we can see that BuzzFeed gets a large portion of their traffic from search.

More misinformation from Google: Simmonds has seen zero ranking effect of moving a site to HTTPS. He notes that social share counts will reset if you move your site to secure, but there is a way to get it back for Facebook.

If you’re going secure, talk to tech about implementing the Meta Referrer tag. That will get you credit and keep you out of the dark social trap.

Image search is a walled garden:

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

There’s not really a way to optimize for image search anymore. Image optimization is a fleeting thing and instead that energy can be spent on image optimizing for Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat.

Most popular month for search is October, the beginning of Q4 as shopping is gearing up. If you’re thinking of doing development work, do it in July.

popular search months

Most popular days for search:

popular search days

Monday is your day for product launch.

Dark Social

It’s not realistic that people are typing in URLs several directories deep and old URLs.

Scrub the direct traffic URLs against social plays and search plays. Facebook is the biggest problem when it comes to dark referring traffic. Facebook Insights is kind of useful but not great, so Simmonds went to a third-party social analytics tool: Chartbeat. This tool has bridged the gap from a mobile and social perspective in showing where Facebook traffic is coming from.

Formula: pull direct traffic, remove home page and section friends, what’s left is dark social.

Speaking of dark, if you normalize for Facebook, remove them from the list, you’ll see all the other players. What’s missing from these players is YouTube. YouTube doesn’t drive traffic back to a site, so he doesn’t have a YouTube strategy. YouTube is a branding experience, but it’s a walled garden.

Dark Mobile

Mobilegeddon has been happening all along. Mobile search shows no sign of stopping. In the last 18 months, it’s grown 115%.

Safari and Google App pass accurate Organic referrer data. Chome mobile browser passes accurate Organic referrer data. But the Android Search App passes referrer data as Direct. Replace the Google+ share button with WhatsApp; USA Today put it on their sports section and saw 18% increase in traffic in a month. But out of the box, the WhatsApp share button won’t send the right referral data.

Read these two articles by Emily Grossman:

  • App Indexing and the New Frontier of SE
  • Apple Search + iOS App Indexing

Questions to ask:

  • Autocomplete in mobile/web browsers? Direct or organic?
  • Apple maps doesn’t pass mobile referrers
  • Any new app like the WhatsApps of the world
marshall simmonds dark search
Marshall Simmonds on stage at SMX West.


  • Be aware
  • Beware misinformation
  • HTTPS is not an SEO strategy
  • Image Search traffic is dead
  • Quantify direct traffic — is it search or is it social?
  • YouTube traffic is dead
  • Facebook is fixing things but still obscuring data
  • Twitter strategy
  • When new iOS/Android releases, check referrers
  • Add WhatsApp share links
  • ASO is the new SEO

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

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