As social media use continues to grow at a breakneck pace and businesses plow more and more of their resources into social media initiatives, SEO advocates – no doubt feeling their stranglehold grip on the market slipping – are increasingly hyping the value of organic traffic (that is, search-driven visits) and decrying its socially derived cousin. Social media traffic isn’t predictable or sustainable, is quick to bounce, difficult to convert (here, here, here, here – it’s kind of an obsession), and basically useless for sites monetized through click-based ad revenue. The defenders of SEO champion the benefits of organic traffic based upon several critieria: time on site, return visits, page views, and bounce rate. Social media users are perceived as disloyal and fickle, disinterested in consumer activity, and either hostile to advertising or so damn savvy they’re immune to it. Don’t be taken in by the allure of social media, these SEO advocates warn, or you’ll end up chasing worthless traffic.
Fortunately, these SEO advocates are wrong. It’s time to bury the myths about social traffic:
Social traffic is predictable and sustainable: The viral nature of social traffic leads some to conclude that it is inherently unpredictable and fleeting. A particular piece of content or advertisement may spread like wildfire through social channels and drive a flood of traffic to your site, but it’s impossible to see it coming, and unlikely to turn into repeat visits. There are a few problems with this. It confuses “viral” with “pandemic,” a common misconception shared by SEO and social media advocates alike. Viral dissemination simply means that a message is communicated from peer to peer, not that it necessarily becomes an instant hit. Even if viral channels eventually result in a flood of social traffic, the long tail effect may take days, weeks, or months to come to fruition, a sort of slow-motion rising of the waters. If you’re engaged in the social conversation and monitoring your social media initiatives, you’ll be able to see a traffic spike coming. Not only will you be prepared for it, but you’ll know what worked and why, and you’ll be able to build on your success and increase your retention and conversion rates over time. Moreover, the belief that social traffic is unsustainable speaks more to the quality of the site under examination than the nature of the traffic itself. Strong content, brands, products, and services will attract a following and convert visitors. And again, social media engagement coupled with robust monitoring will allow you to follow the conversational path and learn how to tap into relationship networks to maximize effectiveness. Whether we’re talking about organic or social traffic, sustainability takes work.
Social traffic isn’t more prone to bounce: Like I said, want to make your site sticky? Make it good. Strong content, brands, products, and services will attract and retain visitors. There’s no SEO silver bullet that can save a site or company from mediocrity. If you want visitors to dig deeper into your website than whatever page they land on, give them an incentive to do so. Whether traffic is organically or socially driven, you have a better chance of keeping visitors on your site by optimizing your page design to feature other content of interest than you do building your page according to the latest SEO gospel. Quality drives interest. Period. And as you build your reputation within social networks by actively participating and contributing, you’ll give folks a reason to dig deeper into your site or expand engagement with your brand.
Social traffic converts: It is probably true that folks who type a product or service into a search engine are more likely to click on particular types of ads (AdWords, for example). However, the assumption that organic traffic is driven independently from social media interactions is difficult to prove. Researchers are increasingly focusing on the mutually reinforcing relationships between different types of online activity, as well as online and offline activities, in order to better understand the way messages influence behavior, particularly consumer purchasing decisions. I may type “lawnmower” into a search engine when it’s time to buy, but my decision to purchase will have been informed by exposure to offline ads, conversations with friends, online product reviews, and the feedback I receive through my online social networks. My decision to click an ad or purchase a product from a site returned in my search results doesn’t make me “organic” traffic, strictly speaking. Aside from this analytic quibble, the detractors of social traffic are just wrong about conversion. There are ample social media success stories – conversion success stories. A report in the McKinsey Quarterly points to several case studies of social media engagement that dramatically improved conversion rates. Recent studies indicate that social media users drive conversion through word of mouth recommendations, that conversion rates are significant when social traffic is driven to sites within appealing verticals, that social media engagement has a positive impact on revenue, and that social channels have become the primary locus of consumer engagement with and conversations about brands. A report from Performics and ROI Research also finds that users welcome engagement with brands in social media environments. A recent Nielsen survey reveals an 11% increase in consumer activity on social media sites from 2008 to 2009. Even if we grant that social traffic is less likely than organic to result in ad click conversion (again, big speculation given the mutually reinforcing nature of message exposure and the fact that click traffic is slowing generally), this is irrelevant to eCommerce sites, where the question of conversion is primarily about making a sale. These studies indicate that social traffic is not only a buying audience, but a primary driver of purchasing decisions. And even if we confine our analysis to ads placed on social sites, lower click rates are more than compensated for by deeper engagement between brands and consumers. When we expand the conversion discussion to include consideration of a broader impact on ROI than mere click-rates, the advantage of organic traffic is dramatically attenuated.
Social traffic is the future: For all of the reasons just stated, and more. The biggest reason to doubt the advocates of search-driven organic traffic is that they’re living in the past. Social media is fundamentally transforming the way we use the Web. Search engines were a giant leap forward in the evolution of the Internet, imposing order and creating navigable paths for users. Social media is another great evolutionary step. From an order defined by algorithms to one semantically constructed by our own interactions and relationships, the age of social media has created a more personalized, trustworthy, and user-centric way to find what we’re looking for, be it information, entertainment, or consumer goods. With the advent of targeted results delivery and social search, the very instruments that made SEO possible are transforming. To ignore the reality of this transition is the worst of revanchist impulses. Whatever perceived advantage search-driven organic traffic may once have held, it is now an endangered species. All indications are that social filters will become the predominant mode of Web travel, if they haven’t already. And far from a development to be lamented, social media may actually end up being a huge boon to online advertisers and those that support them (or are supported by them). To quote the McKinsey Quarterly report at length:
The rapid growth of online advertising hides a serious challenge: the digital world has developed faster than the tools needed to measure it. This problem has made it difficult for marketers to fully exploit the Web’s promise as the most targetable and measurable medium in the history of marketing. Can digital advertising live up to its potential?
It’s going to take some time. A June 2008 McKinsey digital-advertising survey of 340 senior marketing executives 1 around the world shows the breadth of the gap between what’s needed and what’s available. Hobbled by nascent technologies, inconsistent metrics, and a reliance on outdated media models, marketers are failing to tap the digital world’s full power. Unless this problem is addressed, the inability to make accurate measurements of digital advertising’s effectiveness across channels and consumer touch points will continue to promote the misallocation of media budgets and to impede the industry’s growth.
Some companies, though, are making progress. The most exciting innovations are taking place in three areas. In media planning, marketers have been developing analytics that allow them to compare the effectiveness of on- and offline efforts. They are also developing a better appreciation of how online marketing messages convert shoppers into buyers, both online and in stores, and using these insights to make specific digital-advertising techniques more effective. Third, to target advertising messages with greater precision, a few leaders are learning to measure the ties among people in social networks—something we call the optimization of social media.
Instead of decrying the perceived limitations of social traffic, websites and businesses should be figuring out how best to capture and convert it. Doing away with misconceptions is the first step to success in the brave new world of social media.