Content discovery has come a long way from the days of Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. Time was, your average Internet user discovered new content through hierarchical guides and link aggregators, like the early versions of Yahoo and AOL. Then came the search engine model, and with it algorithm iterations with cuddly names like Panda and Penguin.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the algorithm zoo. The rise of Facebook and Twitter has presented publishers with a third strategy for reaching consumers: social referrals. Social traffic is not a new phenomenon – consumers have been sharing Web content and URLs with their friends and colleagues via email since the first Mosaic browser was released in 1993.
What has changed is the way that social media sites structure and amplify a person’s network connections. That New Yorker article URL you emailed to 10 friends back in 2005 would today be posted to your 500 friends on Facebook and 1,000 Twitter followers. And as the Likes, Shares, and Retweets pile up, the reach and traffic impacts get magnified. That’s a revolution in how consumers are now discovering publisher content.
How far how have we come? The Atlantic recently reported statistics that measured social sources as 18% of total referral traffic across a basket of premium publisher sites. Search represented 22% of referral traffic. With the growth of social media continuing unabated, 2013 could shape up as the first year when social outstrips search as the most important channel for consumers discovering publisher content.
For certain publications, including The Atlantic, social traffic already far exceeds search in importance.
Recent moves by Google will only accelerate this trend. One of the reasons search has remained the dominant traffic referral source for publishers is the feedback loop created by analyzing the keywords that readers search prior to clicking on a link on the results page. Editorial and analytics teams use this data to help understand topics that resonate with their readership.
However, Google’s recent shift to encrypt search keywords for a significant fraction of search referrals means that publishers will no longer be able to rely on this insight. As the quantity of search keyword data continues to decline – and as the quality of social analytics continues to improve – it’s not hard to imagine a tipping point occurring in 2013 where much of the time and resources currently spent against SEO will transition over to optimizing social channels.
A major wildcard impacting the relative importance of social traffic vs. search is the steady growth in mobile content consumption. Specifically, will mobile devices expand the overall amount of sharing and search behavior, or simply cannibalize existing desktop behavior?
comScore’s November 2012 search query report showed volumes declining by over 6% vs. October 2011 on desktops. While those declines are being offset by growth in mobile search volumes, the trend is clear: Consumers are substituting desktop queries with mobile queries.
On the other hand, social network usage on mobile devices continues to explode, even as desktop-based usage also increases. Per a recent study by Nielsen, time spent on social media increased by 68% YOY on mobile devices vs. a 24% increase on desktops.
What does all this mean for publishers?
With trends for social media usage surpassing search, 2013 is shaping up as a seminal year when social networks begin to edge out search algorithms as a more important source of user traffic. Publishers need to invest in understanding what content is being shared the most, as well as what types of articles drive the most referral traffic, to keep growing their user base and engagement levels.