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By: James Duthie
Pop quiz If you could choose between 1,000 social media visitors and 1,000 search engine visitors for your blog or business, which would you choose? It's a no-brainer right? Everybody knows that search engine traffic is of a far higher quality! Aaron Wall, Matt McGee & Matt Bailey are just a few industry experts to openly question the value of social media traffic. After all... while it has the potential to attract huge numbers of new visitors, engagement and conversion are traditionally poor. Matt Bailey's research in particular helped to put some numbers and substance behind the assumption that social media generates lower quality traffic. But aside from Matt's research, I haven't seen a lot of other tangible examples with real data to verify the belief the search engine traffic is king. So I decided to put the traffic quality assumption to the test myself, and find out how social media traffic compares to organic search traffic.
In order to do so, I put two blogs up against each other. One blog generates most of its readers via search engines, and the other generates most of its traffic via social media:
- Marketing Easy SEO centric
- Online Marketing Banter Social media centric
The methodology behind the test isn't perfect, as neither site generates all of its traffic from the single source. However, as the figures reveal below, the proportion is significant enough to allow meaningful comparisons:
- Marketing Easy 81% of traffic driven via search engines
- Online Marketing Banter 80% of traffic driven via social media
In order to evaluate traffic quality, 4 key user engagement metrics were compared for each site:
- Returning visitors
- Average page views
- Time on site
- Bounce rate
Proportion of returning visitors:
The returning visitor rate is an indicator of reader loyalty. Social media is notorious for attracting drive-by visitors who read a single article and never return. If this assumption is true, the proportion of returning visitors should be lower for Online Marketing Banter. Let's see if that holds true:
- Marketing Easy Returning Visitor Rate 19%
- Online Marketing Banter Returning Visitor Rate 15%
Of course, attributing reader loyalty solely to the traffic source would be a foolish assumption to make. There are a range of other variables that influence reader loyalty, most notably:
- The quality of content
- The relationships the author has established with their audience
- The age of the blog. Marketing Easy is has been around a lot longer than Online Marketing Banter, and has had more time to establish loyal readers.
Nevertheless, Marketing Easy takes out Round 1.
Average page views:
Social media consumers have a reputation for being a fickle and unengaged bunch, rarely exploring the sites they visit. If this assumption is correct, the average number of page views for Marketing Easy should be higher.
- Marketing Easy Average Page Views 2.99
- Online Marketing Banter Average Page Views 1.3
Now we're cooking with gas! Marketing Easy readers visit over twice as many pages as Banter readers, indicating they're far more engaged with the site. The fact that the average Banter reader views just over 1 page per visit provides substance to the belief that social media visitors rarely click beyond the initial article.
Marketing Easy takes out Round 2 as well.
Time on site:
Time on site is another metric used to measure reader engagement. Page views have been criticised as an accurate gauge of user engagement following the emergence of Ajax, which allows pages to be updated without requiring visitors to view a secondary page. And while this technology is rarely used within blogs, measuring the average time on site will provide a more holistic view of reader engagement.
- Marketing Easy Average Time on Site 1m 48s (1.8 mins)
- Online Marketing Banter Average Time on Site 1m 18s (1.3 mins)
Strike another blow to social media. Marketing Easy's readers spend 30 seconds longer on the site than Banter's readers. The consistency between this metric and average page views provides persuasive evidence that search engine users are far more engaged than social media consumers.
Marketing Easy makes it 3-0.
Bounce rate is the final metric to be reviewed, and typically provides insight into site relevance. Bounce rate measures the proportion of visitors that left the site after viewing just one page. A high bounce rate indicates that the user didn't find what they were looking for. Or in the context of this research, it's another metric to test the theory that social media consumers are more prone to the one page visit.
- Marketing Easy Bounce Rate 83%
- Online Marketing Banter Bounce Rate 84%
This is an interesting finding. Marketing Easy's bounce rate is just 1% lower than Banter's (don't be fooled by the scale of the graph). The parity in bounce rate is somewhat difficult to understand, especially given the clear superiority of Marketing Easy in page views. My best guess at explaining this finding is that people searching for SEO (Marketing Easy is an SEO blog) are probably interested in SEO consultancy services, which aren't advertised directly on Marketing Easy.
The narrow advantage in bounce rate allows Marketing Easy to take Round 4.
A clean sweep of loyalty and engagement metrics certainly provides evidence to support the theory that search engines generate superior quality traffic. In 3 of the 4 metrics, the search engine supported blog generated a clear lead over the social media supported blog. And while other factors undoubtedly influence each engagement metric, the fact that Marketing Easy led all 4 categories removes some of the doubt relating to external influences.
So what are the implications of the research for site owners? Should social media initiatives be abandoned pronto? Obviously not. Social media has its place as a genuine traffic generating tactic. But people using social media should be aware of its limitations. If you're looking to sell products or ads, social media may not be the best promotional tactic due to lower engagement levels. However, if you're looking to generate a lot of traffic quickly, social media may be perfect.
Of course, at the end of the day there's no need to choose between search engines and social media. Each have their pros and cons. Good marketers will recognize this and will utilize both to reap the most out of each medium.
James Duthie is an Australian digital marketing expert. He writes on all things social media, blogging, SEO & digital marketing at his blog - Online Marketing Banter. Subscribe to hear more of his ramblings here.
A special thanks must go out to Lucio Ribeiro of Marketing Easy for his generosity in supplying his site data for this research. Without him the analysis would not have been possible.
41 thoughts on “SEO vs SMO – Traffic Quality Put To The Test”
No where do you talk about the different kinds of social media; instead you talk about them across the board. Sites like Digg and StumbleUpon are liable to get a lot of poor quality traffic. However, del.icio.us and FriendFeed (I came here from the latter) are more liable to get high quality traffic. For del.icio.us, people tend to only put the highest quality information on their page. For FriendFeed, they may come and read an article to join the discussion on FriendFeed itself. You can see here where it has been shared and I have clicked through… maybe the discussion will happen:
hi, Duthie u ve well-organized this research of yours! it is nice to see a grand topic addressed so extensively. i want to ask your permission if i can publish it with your name in a local Telecom & IT magazine… i am waiting for youe reply.
this is a magazine which publishes from Karachi and distributed natrionwide. your article will fecilitate the readers… waiting for your reply, Bye.
@Batool – I am ok with you reproducing the article, but it’s probably best that we discuss it privately.
You can contact me on jamesduthie2005[@]gmail[dot]com
What an interesting comparison between the two. Clearly, SEO is going to bring more relevant traffic to a site. The bounce rate shows how irrelevant content can hurt a site…the bounce rate graph is so misleading compared to the others!
Relevancy is vital. That should be a mantra we all repeat. 🙂
I question your graphs! They are deceiving if you don’t read the article (haha) but this is a really good post. I love all traffic, I just work harder for the organic traffic.
Interesting reading indeed, but Social Media and SEO go together hand in hand… good SM projects naturally attract a healthy volume of quality links, all of which is handy for PageTrust, surely?
Also, statistics aside, there is branding value in having both top search positions and a high profile on social media sites.
Very interesting article.
Im also not surprised by the findings as traffic driven by search engines, is likely to produce visitors more inclined to be in a search and purchase mode.
My own opinion is that traffic driven solely by social media is more important for business/brand awareness and raising profile, as I am currently finding out by my own research in this area.
Although I was intrigued to see that results for returning visitors as I would have estimated it to have been higher for the web site driven by search engines.
Very interesting data and it’s great to see something concrete on this instead of the same old guesses. There is a factor missing from your experiment, though, that I think is an important one: the nature of the site. You have here two marketing blogs, and for that topic search traffic will be targeted to the entire site. You are likely to get visitors through search who are looking for information in a subject area, and much of your site will cater to those interests.
On the other hand, I have a webzine that covers a wide variety of social issues. Search traffic isn’t great for this site…people who are looking for information or commentary on a particular event typically search for that event, land to the relevant article, and then move on from there. On the other hand, social media visitors are more likely to be interested in the general type of commentary on the site (as opposed to a particular news story). I haven’t crunched numbers, but anecdotally many of our social media visitors view multiple pages and become return visitors–almost none of our search traffic does.
I tend to think that search engine traffic is a little better and this data supports that conclusion.
However, there’s one other thing to consider… How much effort it requires to drive both kinds of traffic. If we could calculate how many “minutes per visitor” worth of effort both required, we might find that social media traffic provides a better overall ROI–if it’s a lot easier for you to secure traffic from those sources.
Great to see someone crunching a few #s!
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