Social vs. search vs. direct: How do you get to a website? (Or, why ‘we put it on Facebook’ is a bad strategy.)

There are a couple of different ways a person can reach your website, but three of the biggest would be social (i.e. from Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or what have you), direct (typing in/bookmarking the URL) or search (i.e. Google, Bing, etc.) There’s a new paper out from the Pew Research Center that goes into this in some detail, opening with this line for context:

How someone gets to a news organization’s website says a lot about the level of engagement and loyalty he or she displays toward the site and its content.

Got it, and that’s only logical and true. Some of the study is summarized here via Slate, including this helpful infographic:


Essentially, Facebook users will help drive up your numbers — social can account for 2.9 visits per month, at about 1:41 per visit time-wise — but it’s akin to a digital marketing cock tease in a way, because they (a) don’t stay that long and (b) don’t come back that often. If you get a direct referral, though, those people come back 10.9 times per month and stay for 4:36 per visit. That’s the equivalent of leaving a toothbrush at someone’s place, ya know?

We’ve talked about this before — the idea that no one really knows how to measure an online audience, or, phrased another way, people will use the metric that makes them look the best. For example, I had an old boss who had a blog on our site. His blog did sub-par traffic, but sometimes the average time spent would be about 11:36. No joke. When I told him that and explained the stat contextually, he didn’t care. He wanted to hear “1 million people have read this.” So I knew that I could report that out to partners, but for him, I needed to work on driving up the actual clicks. It’s all context, honestly.

Here’s one thing I wish people understood more, and I’ve been on maybe 12-15 phone screens (first-round interviews, essentially) where the HR person or hiring manager doesn’t seem to know this: Facebook tweaked its algorithm over the summer. If something you post gets more likes and comments, it gets driven up in other News Feeds. It’s that simple. Here’s an example from this blog: I share maybe 1-2 things per day on Facebook (I write about 3-5 per day, but I think overkill can be annoying). Most things I share don’t resonate a ton, even though they do contain a photo (text-only posts are driven down in the current FB algorithm). But I wrote this post and shared it and socially, it did better than anything I’ve written pretty much. Note: it was personal and made a point, both of which have value in the social sphere. Back to these interviews for a second, though. So many hiring managers will say stuff like “We need a robust Facebook strategy!” and often follow up with “There are a billion people on there!” Indeed, there are. And you might have 200K of them liking your product. But if you’re posting the wrong shit, or boring shit, about 290 of those 200K will actually see it. Facebook buries stuff under the new algorithm; the stated goal is to put high-quality content in front of the users. (This confuses me to no end in some ways, because my News Feed is consistently topped by people I barely have even met in real life.)

Ultimately, what this Pew stuff proves — and what people probably kind of knew anyway — is that you want to convert as many visitors to future direct visitors as possible. That will increase your views, your time spent, and possibly other metrics. In that way, while the Internet is often depicted as something different from “the real world of products,” it’s actually not. Just like someone marketing Clorox wants people to become brand-linked to Clorox, so too does someone working for The Atlantic want people to become brand-linked to The Atlantic. The methods may be different, but the end goal is the same: you want users who go to do something (supermarket, open their laptop) and think of you first. That’s legitimate engagement. 50K clicks with only 2 purchase orders = you’re broke. 50K clicks with 38K purchase orders = start researching second homes. The ultimate goal is connection and engagement.

Ted Bauer