There’s no question that social media is becoming an increasingly important source of traffic for Web publishers, from articles and videos being shared among friends on Facebook to users following individual reporters on Twitter. But it turns out that social media referrals may be worth less to publishers than direct traffic or traffic from search.
According to a new analysis conducted by Outbrain, a company which provides widgets to publishers designed to keep readers on their sites longer, two-thirds of traffic to sites still comes from either users directly visiting a content site or jumping from page to page within that site. Among the 33 percent of traffic that comes from outside sources, search accounts for 41 percent, versus 11 percent for social media—though that number is on the rise.
Outbrain’s analysis, which examined more than 100 million site visits to over 100 premium publishers during Q1 of this year, found that social media referrals result in shorter visits than search or direct traffic. In fact, visits driven by search result in a larger average number of page views per session (Outbrain doesn’t say how many), while visits that come via social media exhibit the highest "bounce rates"—meaning sessions during which a user visits just one page and then leaves.
Outbrain’s theory is that those people who are deciding to visit a site on their own, or are searching for specific topics, are more likely to stick around than people who have been urged to visit a site by a friend or colleague. Content sites have the lowest bounce rates, "presumably because they are targeting an audience that is already engaged and in content consumption mode," writes Kelly Reeves, Outbrain’s senior marketing manager, in a blog posting. "Traffic coming from social media sources, on the other hand, has the highest tendency to bounce."
Direct site visitors and those who arrive via search also score highest for "hyper-engaged reader sessions"—which Outbrain defines as visits when readers consume five or more pages. Social media and portal referrals score much lower for this metric.
Interestingly, the potential stickiness of social-media-referred traffic appears to vary by content genre. For example, Outbrain found that 42 percent of traffic referrals for news sites arrives via social media while less than 5 percent of sports sites’ traffic.
There are also noteworthy differences between the referral powers of Facebook and Twitter. Outbrain’s analysis found that each property’s users showed consistent levels of engagement; Facebook simply reaches more people. “We found about 72 percent of sessions originating from Facebook were from a unique visitor, versus only 52 percent in the case of Twitter, suggesting that Twitter’s audience is more likely to be made up of repeat visitors,” writes Reeves.