Is Social Traffic Overhyped? (And Does It Even Matter?)

The schoolyard brawl between search and social is on. Search, the longtime undisputed big kid on the traffic-referral playground, is being challenged by the once-dismissed band geek, social. And they’re about to throw down.

Wait, what?

A personified battle royale between search and social may seem silly, but a contentious debate has been brewing over whether social media is overtaking search as the main way that people discover content. For instance, when BuzzFeed claimed Facebook had overtaken Google, SEO consulting firm Define Media Group quickly responded with its own data that insisted search still far outpaces social.

But does this debate really matter for people who publish content—either brands or traditional media companies? After conducting an incredibly unscientific survey of a handful of publishers, I found a common response: It does not.

Of the publishers I spoke with—most off the record—just under half reported search still bringing in most of their traffic. Just over half said social is pulling in more referrals. But nearly all underlined the importance of having a content strategy that prioritizes both.

“To rely on one more than the other seems like you’re investing too much in either basket,” said Brian Rice, co-owner and content strategist for Business 2 Community. “I don’t sit up at night worrying about that latest in SEO versus what does my social audience want.”

Unhyping social growth

Social traffic may be growing at a notable rate, but it’s not lumbering through Tokyo terrorizing keywords and knocking down search engines’ ivory towers. Even Shareaholic, a company with plenty of incentive to talk up social, released data in December showing that social accounts for 15 percent of referral traffic to publishers, compared to 41 percent for organic search.

Which referrer performs better for which sites, said Rice, often depends on their content.

“If you look at the type of content BuzzFeed is creating, and you look at the webmaster tools for Google, those types of posts will tend to get ignored by search,” he said. “Take ‘Which Full House Character Are You?‘ Nobody is searching Google for those terms, but it takes off because they have such a huge following.”

But if you’re creating content people seek out—such as business advice or analysis of industry data—the content can perform better long-term, thanks to search, than a viral post that dies out after a day or two of rocketing through the social web. So, it’s no surprise that 60 percent of Business 2 Community’s traffic comes from search.

“Evergreen content is awesome,” Rice said. “The first thing I wrote on the site seemed to be a dud. But now that post still gets 10 to 15 views a day. After four years, that adds up.”

But not dismissing social’s incredible growth

While Shareaholic’s data found that organic search referral traffic laps social referral traffic, it also found that search referral traffic increased 110 percent during 2013. Search referrals shrank by 6 percent.

PSFK is contributing to that jump in social; the business publisher now receives 60 to 70 percent of its referrals from social media sites. This is thanks, part, to the rise of mobile, said founder and editor-in-chief of PSFK, Piers Fawkes.

“I think it’s very interesting, this flip that’s taking place,” he said.

“On mobile, you’re reading emails, you’re looking at Twitter, but you’re not scanning Google when you’re waiting for the train.”

PSFK’s social traffic also benefits from real-time optimization. By monitoring the social activity around its 25 daily posts, PSFK can give an extra push to those starting to gain momentum.

“There is this sort of real time dynamic where we can see that something is popular and boost it,” Fawkes said. “We can’t say, ‘Let’s quick-change the keywords and see instant results in search.’ But SEO is really long tail.”

Mashable takes a similar approach through its proprietary Velocity technology that predicts when a story is about to take off. Based on Velocity’s recommendation, Mashable will give a piece extra promotion through its social channels.

Ultimately, search and social can share the playground. While social can propel a piece of content in the short-term, search optimization is crucial to its long-term success.

“Our search strategy is very passive and our social strategy is very active,” Fawkes said. But we try to optimize everything to best of our ability. SEO is very important to us still.”

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