Digital marketing is at a crossroads. Thanks to dark traffic, we can no longer rely on our software alone if we want clean, clear analytics and true, verifiable attribution in our marketing analytics data. Tackling dark traffic will require significant resources just to keep the attribution we have.
What is Dark Traffic
Dark traffic is website traffic which has no attribution. As more devices and apps enable encryption and privacy protection, as we develop more and more ways of sharing content online privately, dark traffic will continue to rise.
By some estimates, such as those of Radium One, dark traffic already makes up more than 70% of social media sharing.
When we look at control panels such as in Google Analytics™, we see astonishingly high amounts of traffic with no attribution – direct, or other – which means the software was unable to determine an origin.
Even in trackers like Bit.ly, we see very high dark traffic numbers:
What causes dark traffic? Apps, browsers, and devices which:
- strip attribution data or fail to pass it along, such as Apple’s Safari mobile browser
- encrypt attribution data, such as any HTTPS session
- have no capability to manage attribution data, such as browsers built into apps like Snapchat
The Impact of Dark Traffic
The impact of dark traffic is simple: less clear attribution. With less clear attribution, we will have less of an idea what works and what doesn’t work, what our ROI is, or what to change/improve/stop doing.
Solving Dark Traffic
The solution to dark traffic is a labor-intensive and planning-intensive one: forcing manual tracking on nearly everything we do, or finding ways to automate attribution at scale.
For example, nearly every marketer knows how to create Google Analytics tracking tags on a one-off basis using the Analytics URL builder. Suppose instead of a generic URL or generic tracking tags, we were able to append things like MD5-hashed user data, date and time stamps, channel source publication, etc. to every URL on an individual basis? We would have far more robust tracking.
Second, once we have unique tracking, we need to package all our URLs in wrappers, with URL shorteners, to ensure that devices and services don’t attempt to rewrite them. A custom URL shortener is practically a must-have for any brand today, but few of them provide the tight integration and individual tracking that I mentioned above. We’re better off forking an open source project and building our own tracker, tying it into our marketing automation systems, and running it in a Docker container to get truly unique, powerful attribution.
Finally, we must increase our use of first party data collection, especially surveying. We need to talk to our audiences, our leads, our customers, and learn how they find us and remain engaged with us. It’s all too easy to just rely on digital analytics and avoid talking to those pesky humans – but that easiness comes at a price: lack of insight about why our customers do what they do. For the most complete picture of attribution, we need to be talking to people on an ongoing basis and incorporating their feedback into our attribution models.
Out of the Dark
If we rigorously track, model, and survey, we can blunt the impact of dark traffic on our digital marketing efforts. We will not solve it entirely, but we can reduce its impact and refine our attribution efforts to be the best they can be.
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