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Social Media vs. Search: Which One Should You Focus on?

August 27, 2014 | By | Reply More

There are a number of ways to get traffic to your website. In recent years, social media has emerged as an important source of traffic, with some experts saying that it could eclipse other sources of traffic such as search.

As a website owner, your goal is to try to get as much quality traffic as you can from every possible way. So the question is: which traffic source should you pursue? Should you focus your time and resources in getting social media traffic, or search?

The question of social vs. search reminds me of one of my clients in my web consulting business. They made the decision to leverage social media in a huge way early on, and doing so dramatically altered their traffic profile. In just three years, social media has dramatically eclipsed search as their main source of traffic.

In 2014, total traffic is 350% higher than it was during the same period in 2011, and most of it came from social media. Social traffic increased from only 13% of total traffic in 2011 to a whopping 71% in 2014. Now, social media dominates the traffic of the site.

traffic channels

In contrast, organic searched dropped from the biggest traffic source in 2011, accounting for 31% of total traffic, to only 1% in 2014. The site did not receive any manual or algorithmic penalties from the search engines. In fact, search traffic continues to hold steady, albeit growing at a much smaller pace. It’s just that social media’s ability to draw in big volume of traffic outweighs search — at least for this site.

The experience of this client of mine mirrors the findings from Shareaholic’s Search Traffic vs. Social Referrals Report. Looking at a 13-month period, they found that organic search’s share of visits dropped by 6%, calling search a mature channel whose heyday is over. In contrast, social media has more than doubled growing 111% year-over-year –and things are just getting started!


So what does this teach us small business owners? Social media is a growing source of traffic – and it will continue to grow. If you have not done so, create social media accounts for your business now. Your target audiences may be using one, some or all of them. If you have limited manpower and resources, the best approach may be to focus on one or a few social media sites first, and grow your audiences rather than spreading yourself thin without getting any results. It is high time to learn what it takes to win in social media and start thinking of how to leverage social for your business.

Here are some things to consider:

Set clear goals

It is important to understand what your goals are for utilizing social media. Is it to get traffic? Is it to generate sales? Is it to get leads? Or is it just to raise brand awareness or develop higher brand authority?

If your goal is to use social media to increase your sales, getting thousands of likes may not hold any value if none of them clicks on your website and actually purchases. While every social interaction increases the likelihood of conversion, it is important to be mindful of your goals when using social media. Ask yourself some questions, such as:

  • What language works best in making them convert?
  • What types of posts work well in terms of bringing in the sales?
  • Why do some posts work well than others?
  • How can you convert your likes, fans and followers into email subscribers?

Social media is not one-size fits all

There are different types of social media, and audiences for each type may be different. Be prepared to create versions of your content that you can share. What works best for Tumblr may not necessarily work for LinkedIn. Study each social media platform and look at what gets the most shares, the most likes, and the most traffic for your website.

If possible, create visual versions of your content. If you have an article with an inspiring quote, create a graphic using that quote and share it on Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, even on Facebook and Twitter. You can use the same piece of content multiple times, at different times of day using different text or approaches each time.

Understand that social media is a highly volatile source of traffic.

An article or video can go viral today, and bring you tons of traffic for two days – then dry up on the 3rd day. Social audiences are very fickle-minded, and will quickly move on to the next viral thing. My client, for example, has seen their traffic go up and down depending on how well their Facebook posts work for that day.

Search is a more sustainable source of traffic, where you can expect a web page ranking well for a particular keyword to get a steady stream of traffic for that page. Even old pages could get a lot of traffic in the search if it is considered an authority page with quality backlinks.

Be aware that what works for search may not necessarily work for social media.

An article that works well for search may not necessarily work for social media, and vice versa.

Many social media-reliant sites such as Upworthy or Buzzfeed do not create their own content; rather, they curate and find highly interesting content and videos from other sources such as Youtube. Their articles sometimes consist of only the headline, a tagline and the video — the type of content that search engines may consider as “thin content” and could get your site penalized in the search engines.

The use of headlines is different between search and social media. One way to get search engine traffic is to use keyword-driven titles and headlines. With social media, the headline is a key part of the strategy, and the element of surprise or mystery tends to work more than giving away the gist of the article with keywords. Click bait titles often without the giveaway keywords tend to attract clicks more on Facebook. Learn the types of the headlines that work best in social media.

There is no escaping the algorithm

Whether you pursue search traffic or social media traffic, you are going to be bound by their respective algorithms.

Your website could be hit by a Google algorithm or a manual penalty, resulting in a huge drop in traffic. Your traffic drop could happen overnight; or it could gradual and continuing traffic decline. Worse, recovery could take a while.

Social, particularly Facebook, also unleashes their algorithm to limit the organic reach of businesses using the platform. Facebook has stated that they expect

organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.

Facebook has also announced that it is shifting its algorithm to fight clickbait, which it defines as “when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.” Even if you have a million or more followers on Facebook, you won’t get traffic if they can’t even see your posts on their timelines.

Whether you use search or social, you are bound by their respective algorithms. If you want to continue enjoying the volume of traffic that you get from these channels, there is always the option of purchasing their ads, which means more expense for you.

Freshness of content

If you are going to use social media, re-assess how you are currently producing your content. Your content needs to be shareable, and should “speak” to your target audiences. The more your content can trigger strong emotions from readers, the more shareable it is in social media.

Given social media’s volatility as a traffic source, targeting social media traffic means an unending quest for producing new content that social media audiences will like. Fresh content works best with social media – unless some influential users stumble on an old article you have and share it on Facebook.

Assess the different traffic channels

Look at the different channels of your traffic – social media, organic search, direct traffic, referral and email – and how each channel has contributed to the objectives of your site. How does social compare to search in terms of bringing in more sales, or more engaged visitors?

While you are working on improving your social traffic, don’t forget the other sources of traffic and make sure that you are growing your other traffic channels as well.

If you have the resources to invest, consider putting it in social media. However, it is important to test, and evaluate the results. What is your goal, and are the users you get from your paid campaigns converting?

Strive for Balance

Putting all your eggs in one basket is a very risky strategy. Do not let any single traffic source, whether it is search or social media, to dominate your traffic channels.

If 70% of your traffic comes from social media and Facebook changes its algorithm, your traffic could plummet significantly. This is the same when you rely on Google and you get caught up in one of their animal algorithms resulting in a massive drop in traffic.
The key is to strive for balance: maximizing each traffic channel without allowing one source to dominate the rest. Build a strong social media presence, while working on improving your email marketing.

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