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Welcome to Shareaholic’s Search Traffic vs. Social Referrals Report. In this report, we analyzed data collected over the last 13 months across our network of 200,000+ sites that reach more than 250 million unique monthly users.

Here, we tracked the amount of traffic the top 5 search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, AOL) and the top 5 social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit) drove to publishers.

Let’s dive into the numbers (click to enlarge):

Shareaholic search traffic vs social referrals chart Dec 2013

The numbers shown are represented as a “share of visits” — a percentage of overall visits, which include direct traffic, social referrals, organic search, paid search, etc., publishers received. We do this because the overall visits (and uniques) our network of publishers receive changes month-to-month. For example, in November 2012, we tracked ~250mm uniques; last month, we tracked ~320mm. Also, sharing our raw data — hundreds of millions of visits — wouldn’t enable you to appropriately benchmark your site’s traffic against what publishers received.

Now, let’s take a look at the results (and dissect what they mean):

1) Search’s heyday is over; it’s a mature channel. Organic search’s share of visits to publishers actually dropped 6%. Search engines are more likely to see drastic growth in their personal market shares than they are to see substantial growth in the overall market. That’s because everyone already references search engines when they need information. Simple as that.

2) Social Media has barely outgrown diapers; things are just getting started. Referrals from the top 5 social media platforms more than doubled (growing 111% year-over-year)! People are more active on social media than ever. This year alone, we’ve witnessed Facebook’s sheer and utter dominance in the social media realm, Pinterest’s sky-high growth and Twitter’s gangbuster debut on the public stock market. Yet social media is nowhere near full maturity. Indeed, this is just the beginning.

Shareaholic search traffic vs social referrals graph Dec 2013

What’s happening here?

People who use the web tend to defer all of their searches to their main designated search engine; connected individuals use multiple social networks (sometimes simultaneously) to connect with their friends, fans and people they follow. Therefore, new social networks may continue to sprout up and capture more and more of users’ leisure time, but users are less inclined to use multiple search engines to find information they need.

What to make of all this?

The obvious conclusion: Marketers should invest more in social media since it is clearly a strong and growing source of traffic. This reinforces what marketers are all thinking (investors too), which is social is the way to go.

The bottom line: If you rely on social media platforms for a large portion of your traffic, get ready to scale up your social media marketing efforts and budget. If you’re currently inactive on social media, begin carving out more and more resources for social. The data suggests you won’t regret it.

How have you seen inbound traffic grow or shrink from search engines and social media sites over the last year?

A Note From the Editor: We publish this blog to share advice, insights and tips to help you navigate the murky waters of digital and content marketing. If you’ve learned something today and like what you read, feel free to share it. If not, tweet me @dannywong1190 to let us know. We’d love to chat about how we can build a better blog for you.

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  • Andrea Bosoni

    Social traffic and search traffic are different but complementary. Social traffic works in the short term, when you publish new content and need to spread the word. This kind of traffic will tipically last some days. Search traffic works in the long term, and if your content is correctly optimized can potentially last forever. In the end you need both!

    • You’re right. You usually get a big spike from social if you have something buzzworthy (a news announcement, a blog post, etc.) which dies out in a matter of days, but search continues to send steady traffic as long as you maintain your rankings. What’s also important to note is that search engines consider social signals too, so the more social buzz you get, the more likely you’ll rise up in search rankings.

    • Search engines are more likely to see drastic growth in their personal market shares than they are to see substantial growth in the overall market. That’s because everyone already references search engines when they need information. Simple as that.

  • GeorgeIsYourMan

    Both search and social have an organic and a paid part. Is the chart comparing organic search with both parts of social? If so, I think the results are being mis-read and that the takeaway is that Paid is gaining ground over Organic, not that Social is winning over Search.

    • The data shown only features organic (non-paid) social referrals.

  • Eric Werner

    Makes me wonder whether the same type of trend would be found in ecommerce traffic, or b2b. It would be interesting if social started sending qualified buyers the way that search does!

    Certainly the social pop is relevant for publishers since they monetize on advertising. There is an interesting article on Forbes right now called The Year We Broke The Internet that discusses publishers reliance on social media for traffic and some of the effects that this has had on the type of content that is now generated as a result.

    Either way you look at it, the creation and promotion of high quality content is going to continue to increase in importance!

    It would also be interesting to see user behavior (time on site or better yet page views per visit) across all of social in comparison to search (in the context of this network of publishers).

    With regard to the conclusions drawn from this data, are we sure that these publishers might not be losing search traffic to competitors that are outside of this network? Seems like the last couple big search algorithm changes didn’t exactly favor most publishers. It would be neat if there were a way to know whether that factors into it or whether people are just shifting to social media as the primary path to the major publishers.

    Is there anything that would suggest that fewer people are searching because they are using social? Or is social growing independently? Also, I wonder if the growth in social in this data set correlates to increased mobile traffic.

    Great article! Thanks for sharing these insights.

    • Hi Eric,

      You pose an interesting question: “are we sure that these publishers might not be losing search traffic to competitors that are outside of this network?” Unfortunately, I can’t be completely certain this is or is not the case. Given our vast network of publishers (200k+ sites is not an insignificant number), it’s probably fair to say yes AND no because some publishers probably took a hit while others benefited from the search algo updates. That’s just the nature of the game when you work with so many different websites — not all of them will follow the same pattern, but in the aggregate, you can identify dominant trends.

      In regards to your other question: “Is there anything that would suggest that fewer people are searching because they are using social? Or is social growing independently?” I can only hypothesize at this point. I believe social is growing independently, and, from personal experience, think that social would encourage more searches (even though I have no data to support this, and the data I’ve published would even suggest otherwise). How? Here’s an example. Often times, I skim my feed, catch an interesting headline and read it. When I want to reference it later, I may search for it on Google. If I didn’t click on it before, I may attempt multiple searches to try and find it again because it’s usually too difficult to find in my Twitter or Facebook feeds a 2nd time around.

      Finally, a report I published last month attributed much of Facebook’s growth to mobile ( Additionally, FB’s Q3 earnings report ( noted strong year-over-year growth in mobile monthly active users. So, yes. It is probably very likely that the data set correlates with increased mobile traffic (but I can’t be 100% certain since I haven’t mined and calculated the mobile numbers for the other social networks).

  • Danny, thanks for the post. It’s good to see the data and the trends for both organic search and social media. Do you have any data on traffic from paid search? One of the things we’ve noticed is that Google in particular seems to be devoting more space on it search results pages to paid ads and less to organic results. I’d be curious to know if you’re seeing a rise in traffic from paid ads the corresponds with the decline in organic search traffic.

    • Paul, glad you liked it! You’re absolutely right. The Google search results pages do seem to feature more ads than they used to. We may publish a report on paid ads (including search) if we come across any alarming numbers or noteworthy trends. Happy New Year!

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