About a year ago, SEO re-claimed its title as the number one source for referral traffic. It snagged the title from social media, which held it since 2014. The news made headlines throughout the digital marketing world and marketers took notice. According to a 2018 survey by Ascend2, 91 percent of marketing professionals said they planned to increase their SEO budgets. Thirty-eight percent described the increase as “significant.”
In 2016, Facebook was driving more referrals than Google. What happened? Why was there such a sudden change in the wind?
How Social Media Lost Its Crown
The truth is the groundwork for the change had been developing for a couple years. It started in 2016 and peaked in 2017. Social media was combatting fake news accusations and the spread of misinformation. When Shareholic published its rolling study that measures traffic sources for more than 250,000 websites in early 2018, the findings were attention-grabbing but not all that surprising.
Shareholic saw a steep drop in visits from social media. Across more than 400 million visits, the top six search engines sent 34.8 percent of traffic, and the top 13 social networks sent 25.6 percent of visitors.
Shareholic’s research was matched by other sources, and the news gained even more speed. A number of notable trends and tweaks proceeded the data — most of which happened in social media.
For starters, people were using social media less — especially Facebook — for the first time in its history. Given that Facebook is the largest social network, a decline there was significant.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter had also rolled out new algorithms in the prior two years that diminished exposure for company and organization content in favor of content published by individuals. Further, some of the algorithm adjustments gave more reach to video content and, to some degree, photos. At the same time, the algorithms gave posts containing a link less priority. While this change likely improved the feed experience, it had an impact on the number of clicks social content sent to websites.
Search engines were influencing the situation, too. They were doing a much better job indexing social media content on their SERPs, making it possible for users to click through directly from search instead of going to a social network and clicking through from there.
The effects of these changes created a scenario where in one year, Facebook’s referral traffic dropped 25 percent, and visits from Google increased 21 percent.
The call to re-prioritize search was made, and marketers, who had always kept their eye on it, began to move.
Social Still Has Value, But in a Different Way
The shift from social to search is best described as a re-prioritization. To be clear, it wasn’t and isn’t a call to walk away from social media. SEO and social are too interlinked for that to happen.
Savvy marketers today know they have to have a holistic view with it comes to SEO. SEO must be integrated with marketing and PR — with content and social.
For example, website visitors from social are less likely to buy, but they are more likely to share and spread awareness. They have a greater chance of influencing other buyers. Visitors from search are more likely to be ready to make a purchase, but they are less likely to share and interact.
In B2B, sharing and spreading awareness is exceptionally important: 91 percent of B2B purchases are influenced by word of mouth.
Savvy marketers also realize social media meets needs search cannot. For example, social media has a speed factor search isn’t exactly known for. Social posts appear instantly, and engagement happens quickly. Consider a scenario where negative search results appear for your product, service or business. Social media gives you a chance to counter criticism or negativity in real-time. Those real-time responses appear in SERPs. With search, it can take days for even the most relevant pages to get indexed and ranked.
Marketers also have more social platforms at their fingertips. When Facebook usage declined in 2017, guess what happened? LinkedIn engagement increased. According to Digiday, LinkedIn likes and shares surged more than 60 percent year-over-year due to product updates, new features and analytics changes. The diversity of the social sphere gives marketers more ways to manage their strategy. Search is still one-sided. While Bing is chipping away at market share, Google holds the lion’s share at 63 percent.
And here’s one more incredibly important reason social matters: Google uses it to understand your brand. Since 2017, it has been reported that Google looks at social mentions (among other signals) to understand things your site should rank for that it’s not ranking for currently. Social can provide context to Google about your brand.
Social media may no longer be the traffic referrer it once was, but it’s still valuable to marketers. It maintains an important role.
Search and social are different tools. They have different but linked roles. The truth is they are both needed, and they need to work together to influence one another.