posted on: 4/21/2011 1:02:11 AM EST
Does Social Media Drive Traffic?
Social Networks, Online Publishing, traffic

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Social Nets Steer Users To Web Publishers
by Gavin O'Malley, Thursday, April 14, 2011, 4:28 PM

Supplanting search engines and other traffic drivers, social networks are sending an increasing share of readers to Web publishers.

During the first quarter of the year, Facebook and smaller social players drove 11% of all external referrals -- compared to the 41% sent by search engines -- according to new research by recommendation engine Outbrain.

Not too shabby, considering that "most of the traffic sources we identify as 'social' have existed in a meaningful way for less than five years," says David Sasson, Outbrain COO.

Of the six content verticals examined, stories in the news, entertainment and lifestyle categories were the most likely to receive traffic from social sources.

"We assume that since these categories are heavily influenced by breaking news or what is happening in the zeitgeist, they are more likely to be shared among people's social circle," Sasson said.

He was surprised, however, by some rankings -- "sports ranked lowest in the categories we looked at," he said. "We had suspected that people who were fans of specific sports teams would actively seek out other fans and be more active in communicating with each other."

Unfortunately for social proponents, traffic coming from social sources had the highest tendency to bounce.

"We have a hypotheses about it, but [it's] hard to know for sure," said Sasson. "First, we think that the social network as a starting point for content discovery lends itself to remaining the starting point. For instance, if someone clicks on an article link on Twitter, they are still fundamentally in the mode of checking Twitter updates and likely will return there to see what other articles people are tweeting. So their editorial loyalty is to their network, not to the publisher site they have landed on."

By contrast, readers who go from one content site to another -- from USA Today to The Daily Beast -- were most likely to be engaged in what they're reading, presumably because they are already in what Outbrain calls "content consumption mode."

Going forward, despite the continued growth of social, "we think trying to find ways to get your content linked from other publishers is, and will be, the most effective way to build a highly engaged audience," Sasson said. "The systems used to power cross promotional activity, however, need to improve to make sure links are well targeted to individual users and audience segments."

During the first quarter, links from publisher sites made up 31% of referral traffic to content pages. Portal home pages (,, accounted for 17% of traffic, while social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon,, reddit, Digg) sent 11% of traffic to content pages.

News stories, at 42%, were the most likely to receive traffic from social sites -- followed by entertainment stories at 30% and lifestyle stories at 13%.

Given the popularity of both Facebook and Twitter, Outbrain thought it was worth comparing their relative traffic quality to see what differences exist. Surprisingly, the two sites drive similarly engaged audiences in terms of page views per session, bounce rates and hyper-engaged reader sessions.

The one key difference was in their relative reach, which Outbrain defines as the number of unique visitors per 1,000 sessions. Specifically, a session from Facebook was 40% more likely to be from a unique visitor compared to Twitter, whose audience was more likely to be made up of repeat visitors.

For its study, Outbrain pulled a sample data set of 100 million sessions across more than 100 publishers -- defining a session as a series of page views within a publisher site with no more than 30 minutes between one page view and the next.

Since Outbrain tracks traffic to content pages, it saw that about 33% of the overall sessions start from an external site. The remaining 67% of content sessions begin internally, from type-in traffic, bookmarks, clicks from the publisher's home page, or other in-site links, or are simply from unknown sources. For its study, it evaluated only the third of sessions that began off-site.

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