A year ago, the main sources of referral traffic to our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com, lined up in this order:
• Typed/Bookmarked (readers who type our url into their browsers or follow their pre-set bookmark);
• Links from aggregators and other content sites;
• Search engines;
• Social media (a roll-up of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn)
Then something interesting happened. The social line began rising, first passing Search and then flying by Other Sites and finally, in late 2011, moving beyond Typed/Bookmarked. Now, TheAtlantic.com receives more than one-third of its referrals from social media, topping all other sources.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not long ago, optimizing your site for search, and for the algorithms that determine which stories get featured on Google News, was thought to be the key to generating audience. As a result, Web editors were learning to parse metadata and resigning themselves to writing headlines for machines. Companies like Demand Media were on top of the digital world, suggesting a future in which search requests would replace journalists as arbiters of what stories to publish.
SEO still matters, of course, and a Google-friendly headline can still make a post go viral. (We’ve seen it: Try typing Earthquake in Japan into your search bar.) But for so many sites, social sharing has eclipsed the machines. And therein lies a happy story.
The triumph of the sharing economy is good news for publishers. Which is why on so many sites, the social media buttons crowd the pages like logos on a NASCAR jumpsuit. If a site can get you to “Like” a story, it wins. Your network, the theory goes, will follow your recommendations. Peer-to-peer sharing beats any top-down model.
So in a social media ecosystem, what exactly works? Here’s the real good news: quality works. If your editors and writers are smart and creative and original, they can produce stories and photos and lists and charts and interviews that are so compelling that readers are eager to share the content with others. Then you get to harvest the rewards: More Facebook Likes, more tweets, more juice with the Reddit community. More readers.
For publishers, that means there need not be a tradeoff between doing great journalism and driving traffic to your site. In a sharing economy, it’s great journalism – in any of its many forms – that builds audience.
Bob Cohn is editor of Atlantic Digital. In this role, he oversees all editorial components of The Atlantic’s digital and mobile properties, including TheAtlantic.com, TheAtlanticWire.com, and TheAtlanticCities.com, as well as the print publication’s integration on digital platforms.