Is Facebook the New King of Traffic?

One of the truly powerful and defining characteristics of the Internet is this simple fact: everything is accessible from anywhere. You put up a piece of content and, unless you lock it down with a password or a paywall or some crazy encryption, anyone can get to it.

At first, this fact stood out as a major reason that the Internet was so disruptive to the well-established model of content distribution. If you wrote something great, the thinking went, your audience would be able to find it and consume it. There were no magazines that you had to get published in or stores that would have to stock your book. You simply published.

(An interesting side story: I studied publishing in college, back in early ‘90s. We had a study of alternative publishing and distribution models, such as photocopied ‘zines and the concept of putting books or magazines in unique places, like cafes or bike shops. The need to disrupt was running extremely high at that moment, just ripe for the Internet revolution. But none of us were aware of any of the technology.)

Of course, now we know the real story. Build-it-and-they-will-come quickly revealed itself as build-it-and-nobody-cares. A new industry emerged: traffic generation. Every publisher needed to figure out a way to either buy ads that would drive traffic or figure out how to get exposure through another source. At first, that source was a directory like Yahoo. The dominance of the directory was toppled by the search engine, with Google owning the show for the last decade or so. But slowly creeping up has been the third-generation traffic (um…) generation: the social network. And the king of all this has been, indisputably, Facebook.

The (unfortunately named but very good) social media tool company Shareaholic has recently shared (haha) some numbers about sharing (hahaha) on Facebook. According to them, Facebook drove nearly a quarter of all sharing traffic to sites across the Web. This means that Facebook is riding high on a wave that has been building for several years: that social traffic is poised to outgrow search traffic, for many sites.

The remarkable thing about these numbers is that this traffic generation has continued even after Facebook changed the algorithm that determines what content will get shown to a user. And, by “determine,” I mean “greatly reduced traffic for most sites.” Even through that, Facebook is dominant as the source of traffic to other sites.

This week, Facebook seems to have doubled down on this with what seems like a small move, but I think will have significant consequences: a save button.

The save button is essentially a bookmarking thing. You may not have seen it yet, as Facebook is rolling it out slowly to users on both mobile and desktop users. The way it will work is simple: on the corner of posts will be a save button. Click it and you will be able to revisit that post later on to explore it.

Some commentators have compared this functionality to other bookmarking services, but this is different. Most bookmark tools simply sit patiently in your browser, waiting for you to click. Facebook’s save function piggybacks on the (I’m going to use caps here) SINGLE BIGGEST SOURCE of TRAFFIC from social sites. That means that this is actually a traffic multiplier.

Here’s what I mean: People are already going to Facebook to find things to click on and explore. Yes, they go to look at what is new with their friends. But increasingly people are finding news, information, and distraction on Facebook, from publishers as well as brands. Couple that with the fact that Facebook is very clearly favoring videos in the News Feed. Suddenly you understand that people are using Facebook to see what is worth looking at.

But it has always been “what is worth looking at right now?” That means you, as a publisher or a brand (or even just a person), had one chance to get someone’s attention. But the save function actually allows you a bit of a second chance, as a publisher. This is a way that content can be attractive and in the flow of a person’s life and compel an action – but one that is easy to do and can generate traffic down the line.

I believe this is Facebook seeking yet a new way to make itself even more critical as a source of traffic for sites of all kinds, simply by ensuring that people can always take an action that can result in a click. Consider the increase in the number of videos that have begun to appear in your News Feed – especially your mobile News Feed. There is a good chance that you see this at a moment when you can’t actually watch the video. Maybe you are not on a great connection or have the sound down. Before being able to save, you would just let these go by. Now, you can collect them and watch them later.

The best use of the save button will most likely be, though, from brands who put up offers or coupons in their News Feed. That is the killer, because you may be interested in free shipping from a favorite shop, but don’t want to shop now. It’s time-shifted browsing.

If I were you, and I were publishing on Facebook, I would start paying very close attention to how your consumers are using the save button, and if you are starting to see increased traffic well after you put up a post.

Related reading

Vector graphic of two smartphones side by side, featuring a man and a woman with speech bubbles issuing from the phones.