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Demystifying Dark Traffic with Marshall Simmonds

By Site Strategics
May 19, 2016

Dark Data – sounds ominous – is it? Could be. But mostly because it represents unrealized potential.

Dark web traffic is also known as invisible web traffic, and indicates anything that can’t be tracked through an analytics program. This unanalyzed data accumulating from search, social media, and other operational data is becoming an increasingly large pile.

SEO experts started noticing it as early as 2001. Marshall Simmonds, CEO of Define Media Group, is one of those experts; he was our guest on a recent Edge of the Web Radio podcast and shed some light (so to speak) on this dimly understood phenom.

“When we’re talking about dark traffic there’s a lot of misinformation out there so it’s important to translate it and break it down,” said Marshall. “You’re ‘dark’ if you’re a secure site pointing to a non-secure site.”

In 2013, Simmonds and his team started digging into the “direct” bucket, which they discovered was a bit harder to do than they expected.

Maggie Malek, who wrote a summary article on Simmonds’ recent SMX West presentation on dark search, differentiated between dark and direct traffic, which comes to your site with no referral string.

“(Direct traffic) could be from someone typing your domain name in the URL box or following a bookmark,” she wrote. “Most analytics tools will put all non-referrer strings into one giant direct traffic bucket.”

In order to understand a recent large spike in direct traffic, Simmonds and his team developed a formula for extrapolating dark search and social traffic from the direct traffic bucket in analytics tools, giving proper credit for traffic volume. They segmented traffic which lacks any link in attribution into three categories: dark search, dark social and dark mobile, and the separated each segment by traffic source.

Apps, Twitter, referral traffic, Android, and iOS all fall into the dark mobile category, according to Marshall. Interestingly enough, Safari, Google App, and Chrome mobile browser all pass as accurate Organic referrer data, however, the Android Search App passes referrer data as Direct.

Dark social includes email, IM, direct traffic, sharing apps, Facebook, SnapChat, and WhatsApp, according to Marshall. It’s what’s left over when you pull from the direct traffic bucket and remove the Home page and section fonts.

Through his research, Simmonds’ goal is to help other search marketers understand how they can attribute dark traffic and prove its value. “It’s very useful to see what traffic is being sent your site’s way, because that translates to value,” said Marshall.

For more, be sure to catch this Edge of the Web Radio podcast.

Marshall Simmonds has held multiple search leadership roles including serving as chief search strategist for About.com and The New York Times. Today, he leads Define Media Group, an audience development consulting firm, specializing in enterprise Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Investment Advisory Services, and Social Media Consulting.