These days, with the surging popularity of social networks and the sort of Buzzfeed-ish viral content that spreads through them, many pundits claim that the age of Google Search traffic for websites is over.
That’s complete hogwash, and I can prove it.
Rumors about Google’s Impending Death
It’s a bit tiresome to see these sorts of claims keep popping up again and again. Just like everyone dreams about the demise of OS powerhouse Microsoft, many dream of the day when Google takes a long walk off a short plank.
These claims are everywhere.
Example #1: On May 3, 2013, MongaBay published an article by Rhett Butler, where the claim was that for the first time, more traffic for the site came from social rather than Google, Bing and Yahoo combined.
“Based on a 12-month moving average, last month was the first time that more traffic to news.mongabay.com came come from social media sources than Google, Bing, and Yahoo. I expect that trend to continue.”
Here is the graph Rhett used to “prove” this was the case.
If this were truly a 12-month moving average, then the left side should be in raw referred pageviews. That’s not the case. Neither trends are being presented in an honest way here.
Secondly, you’ll note that Rhett only refers to news.mongabay.com only, and not the other 24 subdomains, probably because while the news segment of the site might perform well on social networks, the site as a whole gets significantly more Google Search traffic than Social traffic.
According to Similarweb, Mongabay.com gets 80.39% of its traffic from search, and only 4.22% from social.
Sort of puts a big old question mark on top of Rhett’s claims, doesn’t it?
In other words, the data is being manipulated to make you, the reader, believe that social traffic is overpowering Google traffic when that isn’t actually the case.
Example #2: On July 9th, 2012, Techcrunch published an article claiming that “Pinterest Traffic Passes Google Referrals, Bing, Twitter & StumbleUpon”.
The source that was used was the same source Buzzfeed currently uses to make it’s recent claims that social traffic is outpacing organic search – Shareaholic.
Shareaholic just happens to be the most guilty party when it comes to manipulating data in its effort to inflate the importance of social (which we’ll get to in a moment). The name of the site itself should give that bias away, but people still believe the claim.
Here’s how the title was misleading – it claimed that Pinterest surpassed Google traffic, but inside the article itself, you get to the truth:
“The new data shows that Pinterest’s referral traffic climbed from .85% in January to 1.19% in June. That’s nothing compared with Google’s organic search (46.8% in June), but it tops Google’s referral traffic (1.09%).”
This is the game social media promoters like Shareaholic are playing in order to convince the public (you) that the impact of social traffic is actually much larger than it really is.
Here’s how Techcrunch explained this:
“For the purposes of this study, Shareaholic is defining Google referral traffic as those referrals that don’t come through organic search or AdWords, but on other Google properties, like Google Groups or static pages on related Google sites. It does not, however, include Google+.”
Those Shareaholic charts are being used as a source for this claim all across the Internet, by journalists who are either too lazy or too biased against Google to bother digging into the actual numbers themselves. Because, when you do dig into the numbers, the inflated claims all fall apart.
Shareaholic can’t include organic search or AdWords traffic in those charts where they claim that social referrals are surpassing Google referrals, because if they did it would be blatantly obvious just how powerful a traffic driver Google Search actually is in comparison. There’s no competition.
Here’s an honest chart provided by Define Media:
Now let’s look at the site that is the most guilty of manipulating and misusing Shareaholic’s data – Buzzfeed.
Buzzfeed’s Lies About the Impact of Social Traffic
There was one journalist who was smart enough to actually dig into the numbers: Marshall Simmonds of The Daily Caller.
His article was in response to other sites like Re/Code and The Atlantic using Buzzfeed’s misleading Shareaholic chart to make the claim that “…beginning in January of 2013, Facebook surpassed Google as the most important referral source to publishers.”
Unfortunately, our very own Harry Guinness fell for the same chart, in his article How Facebook is Killing the Open Web. Nevertheless, Marshall tosses a bit of a reality check into this whole debate.
“If Facebook is truly the web’s largest refferer and search traffic is no longer growing, then that’s a sea change with massive implications for the entire digital marketing industry, resulting in serious shifts in strategy, resources and budget allocations. Yet BuzzFeed seems to be the only primary source reporting this upheaval.”
The Daily Caller conducted its own research to try and verify or disprove Buzzfeed’s claim. To match Buzzfeed’s claim of using a tracking code representing over 300 million people globally, DC pulled data directly out of Google Analytics and Omniture, covering 87 major publishing networks, representing “48 billion pageviews and 10 billion visits in 2013”.
Here’s what they found:
“Among our network of publishers, search sent nearly 2.5 times more traffic than social, accounting for 41% of all referrals, versus social’s 16 percent.”
This hard data is represented by the following chart.
And although Buzzfeed claimed that over 2013 search traffic referrals “have remained flat, growing only 3% in 2013”, DC discovered that search trends in 2013 actually increased 53 percent year over year.
The only element of truth DC could find in Buzzfeed’s many claims is that social grew in the fourth quarter of 2013 (but so did organic search referrals).
“…it is irresponsible to make emphatic claims based on a biased methodology, and it’s even more irresponsible to report on this information without truly understanding the data and the industry which has seen massive flux in the past 24 months. Not only is organic search alive and well, but it’s more important than any other external traffic driving source.”
While this proves that organic search is still the most important source of traffic for online publishers, this doesn’t mean social isn’t important. Social has its place, and as a reader of online publications it’s important to understand that distinction, so you know how and why online publishers are advertising in those different arenas.
Social vs. Organic Search
Social has its place as a driver of traffic, but it’s the type of traffic social brings that publishers need to understand.
As a reader, this is a reflection of your behavior on both Google Search and on networks like Facebook or Twitter. Marketers base their advertising decisions off your behavior. And if you own a website, these things help you decide where to invest your marketing dollars.
Between social and organic search, one will never truly hold 100% of the cards, and this is because each service has such distinct purposes.
Why People Search
When people open up a search engine, they aren’t looking for a social experience. They’re looking for answers. People usually use search engines for the following reasons.
- Looking for local businesses
- Looking for answers to life’s most difficult questions (health, technology and more)
- Researching products before buying them – electronics, houses, cars…
- Finding information written by experts in topics you’re interested in
Each of these things lend themselves to search results. Social just doesn’t help people find this kind of information on the Internet – not in any useful way. However, social does have its place (and its place is certainly growing).
Why People Use Social Networks
According to a 2010 Econsultancy report, “Three-quarters (75%) of young people (18-26) use recommendations on social sites to help them research products prior to purchase.”
So while the same study found that 61% of all consumers (of every age group) use search engines to research products, a very large number of consumers (especially younger consumers) also trust the recommendations of their peers on social networks at great deal.
Here are the areas where social overpowers organic search.
- Getting product recommendations from peers
- Getting life advice and tips from friends and family
- Finding interesting, quick ways to pass the time online
- Feeling more connected with other Internet users
The Bottom Line
While marketers and publishers are constantly trying to find better ways to get you, the reader, to visit their sites, this recent Buzzfeed-driven interest in social will be short lived.
This is because publishers that jump on this bandwagon will realize that socially viral web pages experience all traffic up-front, which disappears in a matter of days or weeks. By contrast, pages that do well in organic search continue to receive a steady flow of readers for years.
Most experienced publishers already know this, and that’s why few are really paying much attention to Buzzfeed’s attempts to manipulate data. The truth is that the only way to get a lot of traffic from social is to post a very high volume of short, easy-to-digest stuff – junk food for the mind, essentially – as opposed to well researched, interesting blog posts.
Drewskie on TopCultured described it best:
“While social media posts are certainly shorter, faster, and easier to compose than website content, blog posts, and online articles – in most cases, fewer pieces of high-quality online content will generate more traffic than multiple social media posts. For example, a total of 25 social media posts is likely to drive less weekly traffic than 3 well-written, engaging, and optimized blog posts.”
This isn’t to say that social isn’t a wonderful thing, but the next time a friend of yours posts a comment on Twitter or Facebook that social is taking over the Internet, please do me a favor and point them to this article.
What do you think of the social vs. search debate? Do you think social is the future, or that organic search will be with us for the distance? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.