dealing with dark search traffic data

Dealing with Dark Search Traffic Data

This cold open was originally featured in the February 17, 2021 newsletter found here:

Dealing With Dark Search Traffic

Last week, we discussed how to find what channel your dark traffic most closely resembled. This week, let’s tackle what to do about dark search traffic; once we’ve identified what the dark traffic is and we’ve confirmed that our dark traffic is actually dark search traffic (don’t skip that step!), we should start to pick apart what we could learn from it.

First, let’s see where the dark traffic goes. In our web analytics, we want to identify landing pages that aren’t our homepage and have dark traffic coming to them, data which we export from Google Analytics:

Dark Search Pages

So far, so good. Next, we need to see which pages are attracting search traffic in general and understand the ratio of search traffic to all traffic. Remember, dark traffic isn’t binary in the sense that a page is either all dark or not dark; it’s graded based on the different types of browsers and devices your audience uses. That means in turn that a page that has identifiable search traffic also likely has non-identifiable search traffic. Our goal is to figure out how much of it is likely non-identifiable.

Known search pages

If we divide the known search sessions by the total number of sessions, we end up with a search traffic percentage for the page. This is a ratio that helps us understand how much of a page’s traffic is search versus, say, email campaigns, ads, or social media:

Search percentage

And then if we match our known pages to our unknown pages, then multiply our dark traffic times our known search percentage, we arrive at a reasonable number as an inference of how many searches that page has had because we’re inferring that the known search traffic ratio is likely representative of the unknown dark search traffic as well:

Total search sessions

So what? If you’re trying to prioritize pages for optimization based on search traffic, this is important – you might miss some important pages because your known search traffic might give you a different priority list than your unknown search traffic. If you look at line 6 above, almost 75% of that page’s search traffic is from dark search. If we didn’t have these estimates, we might prioritize that page lower on our repairs list, but with our dark traffic estimate accounted for, we know that page is probably more important than it first appears.

This analysis uses nothing but Google Analytics data and in theory could be done in nothing more than a spreadsheet, though it would be a laborious task to do so. What’s shown above is the output of a code-based version, but the process and outcome are the same. Do this analysis on a regular, frequent basis to understand where your dark search traffic is going, and build a priority list of pages to optimize from it.


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