Remarkably, even a cursory glance around the Web reveals that large swaths of the Internet are out of reach of supposedly omnipotent giants such as Google ( GOOG), Facebook and LinkedIn. Alexis Madrigal, the tech channel editor over at The Atlantic, has done an excellent breakdown on this dark, unquantifiable web. "To be honest, this was a very difficult thing to measure," Madrigal wrote. "One dirty secret of web analytics is that the information we get is limited." How limited? Madrigal actually posted the inbound Web traffic to TheAtlantic.com and revealed that a stunning 56% -- or basically double the referrals from Facebook -- came from unknown, or dark, places online. "Dark social is nearly always our top referral source," he wrote. The dark Web of opportunity
The notion that wide swaths of the Web are beyond the reach of Facebook, Google, Reddit, StumbleUpon and other supposedly inevitable big winners in a big Internet is not lost on aggressive entrepreneurs. This month, St. Louis-based LockerDome announced a $6 million funding round from serious backers including Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, and the president of the St. Louis Cardinals, Bill DeWitt III. LockerDome offers a simple sports-themed social media service, surprisingly close to Facebook and Twitter, that does little more than easily allow athletes to socially interact with fans. LockerDome's executives agreed enthusiastically that modern integrated Web platforms such as Facebook fulfill surprisingly little of the Web's full potential. "The opportunity is finding the limits of what they don't do well and serving that market," Gabe Lozano, founder of LockerDome, told me over the phone. Lozano argues passionately that for all their ubiquity, big Web services do a bad job of serving niches markets online. Lozano has the numbers to back up that gut reaction. His LockerDome broke 10 million unique visitors in February by offering essentially nothing more than well-curated social content from sports stars including Troy Polamalu, Larry Fitzgerald, Blake Griffin and many more. "The interest-focused Web is very poorly served," Lozano says. "It's why we are growing so fast."
The investor risks here are significant. First, there appears to be little a Facebook or Twitter can do to capture the value of lucrative social connections that happen on dark networks away from their platforms. "I don't see any scenario where I will be paying for my dark social contacts," Moss said. "The awareness that we add value is what I have to invest in for my business to grow." Even more worrisome, Web may turn out to be a small man's game. That is, large Web operations may simply not be able to capture the full opportunity of the niche-oriented Internet. "The interest-specific experience of what we are doing is very tough for a Facebook or Twitter to match," Lozano said. "It's just not what they do." The Internet universe may turn out to be like the universe itself: little tiny pockets of value falling through a dark void unable to supporting meaningful life.