Traffic Quality vs. Traffic Quantity: Which Matters More?

Published on Author Eli Fennell

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Recent analytic data shows Facebook beating Google in driving referral traffic to publisher sites. This shows the growing importance of social media in driving traffic to your website. Unfortunately there is, or rather should be, a caveat: the sheer amount of referral traffic may not always matter as much as you think. In fact, its source likely matters a great deal more.

Not all web traffic is created equal, and broadly speaking there are two types of traffic: high quality traffic and low quality traffic. Low quality traffic can be recognized by factors like low time on page, low pages per session numbers, and high bounce rates (the rate at which they click back to the referring source without visiting any other Pages).

Not all web traffic is created equal.Click To Tweet

A 2014 study of audience engagement by Outbrain looked at audiences across Content Discovery Platforms, Search Engines, and Social Networks, and found considerable differences in the quality of these audiences. Audiences on Discovery Platforms beat Searchers by 100% for pages per session and Social Users by 165%, and were 23% less likely to bounce than Searchers and 32% less likely than Social Users.

Facebook traffic had the second highest bounce rate, and second lowest pages per session. This is similar to the result of a study of Facebook Video views by the Social Media Manager of Harvard University, which found Facebook native video generating higher view and share counts than YouTube but considerably lower average view times, measured in periods of less than 30-seconds compared to YouTube view times of 3-minutes or more on average. High traffic, low engagement is the pattern for Facebook referrals.

High traffic, low engagement is the pattern for Facebook referrals.Click To Tweet

The reason why Facebook’s numbers are so low isn’t really a mystery: Facebook users don’t primarily use it to search for, discover, consume content, they use it to keep up with family, friends, and acquaintances, and to experience spontaneous moments of delight.

In addition, each traffic source’s audience has its favorite categories of sites, with Discovery least likely to bounce on Travel Sites, Search on Electronics sites, and Social on Entertainment sites. Across the board, however, Social was dead last, followed by Search, then Discovery.

Does this matter? Maybe not right now. If your site depends on traffic to generate ad revenue, then you will probably take any legitimate traffic you can get. I believe this, however, is a bubble that is likely to burst, as ad networks become more advanced and simultaneously more conservative about paying out for low-quality traffic. And even if your goal is advertising revenue, you’ll make more revenue per user from those who stay longer and views more pages after being referred to your site, i.e. what they do after the referral also matters to their value.

If your site does not depend on ad revenue, if instead you’re depending on some kind of conversion, like a sale or a sign-up, then bounce rate and pages per session become even more important factors. Users who bounce likely didn’t find what they were looking for, and users who dive into multiple pages are more likely to be seriously considering what you have to offer.

Looking at the preferred categories for each of these three channels also suggests the natural strategy for tackling each of them or all of them effectively:

Discovery audiences are exploring; they want to be awed and informed and voraciously consume good content put in front of them. Search users are in research mode; they want to look around and kick the tires. Social users seek moments of significance and connections; they want to be quickly and unexpectedly entertained, and to engage around what interests each of them personally.

Search users are in research mode; they want to look around and kick the tires.Click To Tweet

Those may not sound like a match for your business website or blog, but you don’t necessarily have to be an entertainment company to entertain Social Followers, an Exotic Travel Spots or Hot Rods Monthly magazine to wow Discovery Audiences, or a High Authority Reference Source to provide valuable content to a Searcher.

At another level, every social network is also different. Facebook is very casual, and anything other than its most fundamental activities of Friending, Liking, Sharing, and Commenting is incidental to its purpose for most users, including your website and content, but they are willing and eager to be spontaneously delighted if you can find ways to do that.

This type of engagement has a value of its own, but for many website it owners, it just won’t put enough butter on the bread, especially by itself. At the very least, ‘Social First’ is a suspect internet marketing strategy for most small businesses when compared with other sources of traffic, and Facebook among the most suspect due to its casual and familiar nature. Other networks known for generating more engagement around content when done right are YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google+, and these should be at least considered in your social strategy as well.

None of this is to say ‘Don’t Include Facebook in Your Social Strategy!’ If you’re including Social Media in your marketing strategy (if), it is one of the few you almost have to do no matter what (almost). You probably deserve something better, however, than to rely entirely on an online crowd that is largely half-interested at best in whatever you have to say unless it immediately entertains or outrages them.

You should also (and perhaps, in some cases, exclusively) target more engaged referral sources and networks. Facebook is enormous, and sprawling, but it’s also a giant room full of almost everyone’s friends, family, and acquaintances demanding to be heard.  How much chance do you have of getting past that to do anything but amuse them for a few seconds?

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.

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