If you’ve spent any time in a newsroom, traditional or otherwise, you know that publishers are obsessed with measuring where their Web traffic comes from. Whether it’s Google Analytics or Chartbeat, or comScore, or Omniture, or any one of a dozen other providers, tracking where readers come from is a crucial part of online media—mostly because publishers need to know which channels are worth focusing on, since there are so many to choose from. Is Twitter your biggest source? Then you should tweet more and optimize your content for Twitter. Is Facebook a big referrer of traffic? Then you need to be aware of changes to the newsfeed and how they affect you.
But what if your biggest source of traffic and readers is something you aren’t even really paying attention to, and something that is extremely hard to track in the same way as Google or Twitter or Facebook? That’s the reality of Web publishing today, according to Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic—who writes about the influence of what he calls “dark social” on engagement and traffic patterns. While everyone is busy watching Twitter and Facebook because they are easy to track, Madrigal argues that most social traffic still comes from old-fashioned or difficult-to-track sources such as e-mail and chat messages: