Over the past 15 years – an eternity on the web – publishers have leaned heavily on SEO to drive traffic to their websites. For example, publishers have benefited greatly by examining search terms to optimize the discoverability of their content through search engines. It may thus come as a surprise that social media is on the verge of surpassing search as the primary source of referral traffic to many online publishers. How is this possible?
Two key factors stand out: the first is tied to the exploding amount of content that consumers are sharing through social networks. The second, ironically, is linked to recent decisions made by Google itself.
There’s little question that, as consumers, we’re sharing more content today than we did even a few years ago. However, the desire to share itself isn’t a new phenomenon. Ten years ago, you were as likely to share an article with your friends as you are today. What has changed is the emergence of social media networks that have allowed us to broadcast articles, photos, and online videos to hundreds of people vs. the handful we might have emailed just a few years ago. The incremental reach of our online social footprint has, in turn, led to more friends and colleagues clicking on shared links…and all of those clicks are adding up to more traffic for publishers.
Recent developments from Google are also contributing to this trend. For years, search term analysis has allowed editorial teams to better understand what topics are of greatest interest to their readers. However, Google’s move to encrypt search terms for a substantial number of search referrals means that it has become more difficult for publishers to gain an accurate assessment of which terms consumers are searching: Google’s decision, in concert with subsequent browser updates from Chrome, Firefox, and Safari on iOS, has resulted in almost 40 percent of keyword data disappearing from publisher analytics tools.
How important has social traffic become? According to research by The Atlantic, social sources now account for 18 percent of referral web traffic to publishers – only four percentage points lower than the 22 percent of traffic driven by search. Moreover, for a growing number of publishers such as The Atlantic, social traffic already exceeds search traffic.
With the number and quality of search terms declining and the growth of social sharing accelerating, 2013 is shaping up to be the year in which social traffic passes search as the greatest source of referral traffic.
One wildcard impacting this shift is the growth of time spent on mobile devices vs. desktops. While consumers are conducting more searches via mobile, the growth in social media usage via mobile is simply exploding. According to recent research from Nielsen, time spent on social media networks grew 68 percent year-over-year on mobile devices relative to only 24 percent growth on the desktop. In other words, the rise of mobile is only reinforcing the importance of social traffic at the expense of search.
To take advantage of this changing dynamic, publishers need to closely examine which of their content is being shared the most on social media platforms and what content is driving the most referral traffic. Optimizing for social channels will enable publishers to continue to grow their readership while also increasing engagement.
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