Is 2013 the Year Social Finally Overtakes Search Traffic?

Jonathan Crowe by

Adios search. Is social media finally set to become the premier vehicle for driving web traffic and customer engagement with your brand? Checking in on the latest volley in the battle of social vs. search.

social vs search traffic

For the last decade, search has dominated the B2B Internet marketing landscape. If you wanted to drive more eyes to your website and improve brand awareness, traditional wisdom suggested that you better be doing everything you can to improve your search ranking and SEO.

Today, however, the debate over the best way to drive traffic to your site, blog, sales content, or whatever else you want customers and prospects to see isn’t so one-sided. In fact, social media just might have something to say about which medium is the king of Web traffic.

In a post for Folio, Greg Levitt writes that despite the fact the SEO industry is projected to grow to $3 billion in 2013, that growth may very well occur while social media overtakes search as the leading source of referral traffic to publishers. One of the reasons for that shift, Levitt points out, is the torrid growth of user-powered content sharing on social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson seems to validate that prediction in a post on his blog, writing that social referrals now account for more than a third of his monthly traffic. By contrast, search generates a relatively small amount of his site’s traffic — a paltry 10 percent.

Okay, so that’s just one example. And it’s backed by data from a personal blog, not a B2B website.

But according to MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute’s 2013 Budgets, Benchmarks, and Trends report, Wilson’s experience speaks to a bigger trend. In the report, MarketingProfs and CMI reveal that 87 percent of marketers are now using social media to distribute content, a bump of 13 percent over last year. And on average, those marketers are using five social distribution channels, with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook (not surprisingly) leading the charge.


In fact, not only is social driving increased amounts of traffic, it’s also playing an increasingly significant role in search ranking, as well. As Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Marketing put it in a recent podcast with Social Media Examiner’s Michael Stelzner, “It’s virtually impossible to employ a successful organic search optimization effort without robust social content or social presence. These social signals have eclipsed signals like links.”

So, what does it mean for the future of the search vs. social debate when it’s widely understood the former is clearly taking its cues from the latter?

Search is Dead (Okay, okay, Not Really)

No more playing around. SEO sunk to the bottom of The Atlantic's priorities.

Last May, Scott Havens, senior vice president of finance and digital operations at The Atlantic Media Company, told Mashable that his business’s flagship publication, The Atlantic, had officially begun removing eggs from its search basket and placing them into social.

“Personally, I’m committed to driving more website traffic from social. In fact, I think we can get social traffic to surpass total search (paid and organic) referrals. While search is more top of funnel, we’re seeing traffic from Twitter, Facebook, etc. to be more qualified. Time will tell.”

— Rob Yoegel, Content Marketing Director, Monetate

The reason? About two years ago, The Atlantic received about the same number of traffic referrals from search as it did social. Now, 40 percent of its traffic comes from social channels, and that’s led to a very different publishing philosophy. “We’re no longer writing to get the attention of Google algorithms,” The Atlantic Online editor Bob Cohn says in the Mashable post. “We’re writing to get you to share it, to Digg it.”

The biggest implication of Cohn’s statement is that the writers at The Atlantic no longer think it’s worthwhile to take SEO into consideration when writing their articles.

That’s a pretty bold brush-off, and the fact that it comes from a publication that, according to Indvik, has seen rapid growth, increasing its web audience from approximately 500,000 to 13.4 million monthly visitors since 2008, is a bit of a slap in the face for SEO advocates.

So maybe there is something to the argument that SMO (social media optimization) is the heir apparent to traditional SEO tactics.

Article continues on the next page: But Not So Fast: Can Social Actually Convert?

Senior Content Manager

  • Search will always play a roll, it’s all contextual. If I want to stay up to date on the latest news and commentary from experts within a given industry, social media is my go-to. In that respect, having a product part of the conversation within a given niche is invaluable. If my friend is a conversion optimization junkie, and he likes Monetate, that word of mouth will likely affect my decisions. However, if I’m tasked with researching a given subject the search engine is king.

    • jcrowe_openview

      Absolutely agree, Kevin. Each has its own place and use. It does make me wonder about where each falls in terms of conversions/buyer’s journey, though. Obviously they’re both top of funnel, but what I find interesting about Rob’s quote is that his experience suggests Monetate’s customers are perhaps using search in their initial discovery phase, but when they come in from social they are further along in terms of awareness.

      I’m curious to know whether that’s also the case at other B2B companies.

  • I agree with Rob’s comment here. I too am personally focused on driving more social media traffic to content-heavy sections on our website. In the past few months, social has driven 25% more traffic than search to our resource center. I am not ready to abandon search just yet because I think they can both exist.

    • jcrowe_openview

      Thanks for the comment, Amanda! And for sharing that stat. 25%! We’re currently seeing roughly 10% social traffic than search for the Labs site, and I thought that was significant.

      This makes me wonder if we should be treating traffic that comes in via social any differently than search. If Rob’s hunch is correct and potential customers driven to our sites via social are generally a little further along in their process than those arriving from search, then it seems like the answer should be yes.

      Are you seeing any indication that the social traffic you’re receiving isn’t just greater in quantity, but also slightly more qualified, as well?

      • A little. I’ve started tracking conversions (search vs social) for gated content assets, and so far social is converting at a greater rate. I’ve only been tracking this for a few weeks so it is anecdotal at best but definitely worth monitoring.

  • Thanks for the inclusion Jonathan, and great post. Search will always play a part. We all need to stay on top of what Google is up to as they move to becoming more like a publisher every day. SEO agencies who integrate content into their offerings will be able to help companies struggling on any/all three fronts (content, search, social).

  • SEO is not dead and is not dying anytime soon. Although social is more dominant these days, search will still play a vital role in online marketing. The best way to get the most out of internet marketing, pair social and search.