Online publishers of all stripes have invested heavily in search to drive reader acquisition. With a market size approaching $3B in 2013, the SEO industry has thrived on the data feedback loops created by analyzing the keywords that users enter into search engines before arriving at their sites or competitive sites. Yet despite continued growth in user search activity and increasingly sophisticated keyword analysis tools, 2013 is shaping up to be the first year that social media eclipses search as the leading source of referral traffic to publishers. How could this be?

Two parallel trends are driving this sea change. The first is Google’s recent shift to encrypt search keywords for a significant segment of search referrals. This move—followed by corresponding browser updates in 2012 by Firefox, Safari on iOS, and now Chrome to use Google SSL search by default—means that up to 39 percent of keyword data has vanished from publisher analytics systems. Less keyword data means fewer content insights, and fewer content insights means lower ROI from SEO. As publishers recognize lower yields from their search strategies, many will moderate their investment in this channel leading to reductions in search referral traffic.

The second trend is the torrid growth of user-powered content sharing on Facebook and Twitter that has turned a trickle of social media traffic to publisher sites into a flood. It’s worth noting that social traffic is not a new phenomenon—consumers have been sharing web content and URLs with friends and colleagues via email since the first Mosaic browser was released in 1993. What has changed is the way that social media sites structure and amplify a person’s network connections. The New Yorker article URL that was emailed to 10 friends back in 2005 would today be posted to 500 friends on Facebook and 1,000 Twitter followers. And as the Likes, Shares, and Retweets pile up, the reach and traffic impacts get magnified.

For example, The Atlantic recently reported statistics that measured social sources as 18 percent of total referral traffic across a basket of premium publisher sites. Search represented 22 percent of referral traffic. For an increasing number of publications, including The Atlantic, social traffic already far exceeds search in importance. As the quantity of search keyword data continues to decline—and as the quality of social analytics continues to improve—it’s not hard to imagine a tipping point occurring in 2013 where much of the time and resources currently spent against SEO will transition over to optimizing social channels.

A major wildcard impacting the relative importance of social traffic versus search is the steady growth in mobile content consumption. Specifically: Will mobile devices expand the overall amount of sharing and search behavior, or simply cannibalize existing desktop behavior? comScore’s November 2012 Search Query Report showed volumes declining by over 6 percent versus October 2011 on desktops. While growth in mobile search volumes offset those declines, the trend is clear: Consumers are substituting desktop queries with mobile queries. On the other hand, social network usage on mobile devices continues to explode, even as desktop-based usage also increases.  According to a recent study by Nielsen, time spent on social media increased by 68 percent YOY on mobile devices versus a 24 percent increase on desktops.

What can publishers do to tap into this trend? With social media on track to surpass search, 2013 is shaping up as a pivotal year when social networks leapfrog search algorithms as a more important source of user traffic. Publishers have an opportunity to gain insight into what content is being shared the most, as well as what types of articles drive the most referral traffic, in order to continue to grow their readership and engagement levels.


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