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Are publishers overselling social traffic at the expense of search? A dialogue with Danny Sullivan

“We’re producing journalism which is distributed through channels, as opposed to publications. That’s the fundamental change and the key to understanding how to survive the change.”

You may have seen my column yesterday on the rise of content designed for social sharing — a category that for me includes everything from pure-viral outlets like Upworthy to more newsy but still sharing-optimized sites like Quartz.

This was my basic argument: It’s easy to be put off by viral headlines — even in the exact moment you’re clicking them. And I get that. But I argued that even the most Upworthyesque headline is a welcome sign that media companies are getting more comfortable creating content meant for digital platforms — not just taking old forms (the newspaper article, the TV news segment) and shoving them awkwardly into a new medium. Even though there’ll be missteps along the way, I think it’s healthy and a net good that we’re seeing content forms that stray further from what came before.

But one of the other things I mentioned in the column was that, broadly speaking, social traffic was growing in relative importance to publishers, taking over some mental turf that previously belonged to search traffic:

Online news organizations spent the 2000s focusing a lot of energy on search engine optimization — tailoring their content to the needs of Google. Many outlets found that a third to a half of their readers were coming from Google searches, and there was no shortage of consultants promising to boost your stories to the top of those rankings. That led to a lot of journalists sitting through boring SEO training and a lot of keyword-clotted headlines aimed at capturing any stray “I’m Feeling Lucky” it could…

…search declined in importance as a traffic driver because something rose to take its place: social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other networks built their businesses around person-to-person sharing — of what you had for breakfast this morning, yes, but also of news and other online content. Every day, social’s share of online news traffic grows as more and more people get headlines from Twitter on their phones rather than a news website at their desks.

That brought Danny Sullivan to the comments. If you don’t know Danny, you should: The site he runs, Search Engine Land, is the single best source of information on the world of search and a valuable, reported window into what Google is up to on any given day. He didn’t like some of what I wrote:

We had a good back-and-forth in the comments on that post, and so that others can see it, I’m republishing it below.

Danny Sullivan: Social media didn’t rise to take the place of search. That’s a common fallacy, and it’s really one that should be stomped out. It’s the rare publication that will find that its search traffic has dropped over the years.

No, what’s usually the case is that social has emerged as an entirely new source of traffic alongside search and, which for some publications, may drive more traffic than search.

But that didn’t mean search somehow went poof.

Think of it as a pie of traffic. In the past, we have a 6 inch pie that was mostly full of search, maybe 75% of it was search. Social made that pie get bigger, maybe 12%. The “slide” of search as a percentage of the pie might be smaller, but that doesn’t mean the actual amount of traffic dropped.

It’s also a terrible, terrible journalist who comes away thinking that SEO is “boring.” The core part of SEO is understanding how your audience is seeking your content and writing in the words they are searching for.

If you’re writing a story about an important person, subject or concept and fail to use the words that your audience is seeking, you’re potentially missed that audience.

But hey, if people want to think that it’s all about the “you won’t believe” headlines and you can ignore search, there are plenty of search-savvy publications that will gladly take their traffic — along with the social traffic, too. Because you don’t have to be exclusive to one or the other.

Joshua Benton: Danny, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. But a few thoughts:

— In most news organizations I know of, SEO gets less emphasis than it used to. Part of that is because the lessons they’ve learned over the past few years still work — they don’t need to keep relearning them. Part of that is that news orgs are putting more emphasis on social and, as a share of *organizational effort* (if not a share of *traffic*), social is up and search is down.

— I think there’s a broad perception in news orgs that social traffic is *more valuable* than search traffic on a pageview-by-pageview basis. If I’m a business selling widgets, I love search traffic, because that’s coming from people specifically searching for widgets — likely with an intent to purchase. But if I’m a news site, a reader “converting” likely doesn’t mean “reader purchases widget.” It means “reader signs up for our daily email,” or “becomes a repeat visitor,” or “signs up for our paywall,” or “follows us on Twitter.” For that kind of a “conversion,” social traffic is more likely to align the user’s interest and what the news org can provide. In other words, search traffic is still quite substantial, but I think most news orgs value it less than they used to.

(There are, of course, exceptions, e.g. Demand Media and others with similar strategies.)

— It’s also just a matter of momentum. Social is growing rapidly. Search didn’t go poof, but it isn’t growing at the same rate as social, which is why it gets more emphasis.

But your points are very well taken. (Although I do still think that a news web optimized for social rather than for search is one I prefer. It’s not an either/or world, but I think social’s ascendancy has, on net, been better for journalism than search’s.)

Danny Sullivan: I see it more like this. It’s not that search is about the person seeking widgets, for a news publisher. It’s for a person seeking content about a specific subject, as opposed to social which is more about discovery.

To put it another way, the search and social readers are like this:

Search: What the hell just happened! Or, I’m interested in some topic and would like to know more. In short, they are active readers.

Social: I’m bored. Entertain me. Oh, that’s interesting. In short, they are passive readers.

I don’t know that social / passive readers convert better than search / active readers. I’ve seen articles that go both ways. If conversion means getting sign-ups to come again, I can see social working better, since someone might want discover more entertaining content from a particular publication, versus the active searcher who might not care what the publication is from day-to-day but just wants the answer.

I also don’t know that news is “optimized” for either search or social. News is optimized for humans, and both the search and social platforms are trying to appeal to the humans that use them. That’s expressly what Google’s algorithms are trying to do — match real human beings with the content they seek, using signals that they think equate to what humans like.

The bulk of what you’ve highlighted here has been more about headlines — and there, you bet, you can have headlines that are more search-oriented than social-oriented. Until recently, those actually could work together. A search-oriented headline didn’t mean shoving in every keyword under the sun. It meant making sure your headline was both compelling from a clickthrough standpoint and also containing descriptions so people understood what it was about.

Upworthy has broken some of that. “Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week” doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on. The chances of it ranking for anything it’s related to a pretty bad — I mean, what the heck is it about?

That’s fine for Upworthy, which probably doesn’t care about the search traffic — unless it turns out that the social traffic dries up. Then it becomes a bigger issue.

And then, as it turns out, that article/post could easily have had a headline that worked in search and a headline that still got the clickbait in social.

Overall, I don’t know that the shift toward social is somehow inherently better for journalism, especially as it might pull away from the focus on good evergreen content that can also do well long-term in search. But I also don’t tend to think we’re writing stories for either / or.

We’re producing journalism which is distributed through channels, as opposed to publications. That’s the fundamental change and the key to understanding how to survive the change.

It’s not “right, here’s how to write for social” any more than it’s “here’s how to write for search.”

Instead, it’s getting that there’s a huge audience out there which wants to consumer news content not by going to a particular publication each day, at a given time, but instead will encounter your journalism through channels you don’t control but can tap into and optimize for.

That means your story needs to be told through YouTube. And written to attract on Twitter. And maybe you want to use Tumblr. And perhaps you need to be better designed for Flipboard. And how can you ensure you are doing better in Google?

That’s what’s to me, potentially good for journalism. That good stories can potentially reach larger audiences than ever before. As you say, it’s healthy that the old formats are being broken. But it’s not healthy to think the new format is somehow “the web” or “social” or “search.” It’s that the new format is always going to be changing, because the new format is wherever the audiences are and how they want to consume.

At the risk of taking the last word (it’s not really the last word, since there’s a comments box below):

— I think it’s absolutely true that news can be optimized for search or for social (or both). “What time is the Super Bowl?” is optimized for search. “Just In Case You Need Help Figuring Out Whether A Dude Is A Real Man, Here’s A Handy Chart” is optimized for social. And that goes beyond headlines, too: Think of how many social-friendly stories are just a single chart or a single paragraph with a video embed. Danny’s right that the two don’t have to conflict by definition, but it certainly seems to me that optimizing for social is where the energy’s at for most publishers I know.

— I think this from Danny is very smart: We’re producing journalism which is distributed through channels, as opposed to publications. That’s the fundamental change and the key to understanding how to survive the change.

— The key missing word in this discussion is mobile. Here’s a single datapoint: A far greater share of my web browsing goes to Google search on desktop than on mobile. I’m far more likely to come across news on my iPhone via a social platform (Twitter, mostly) than in Safari. And while that’s just me, I don’t think I’m alone. Part of the reason is that Twitter/Facebook/et al fit the mobile paradigm so much better than typing URLs or search terms; part of it is the growth of push notifications. If I’m right, the broader push toward mobile devices for content consumption is likely to lead to greater relative social growth vs. search.

— If there’s one thing I do disagree with Danny on, it’s this: Most SEO training in news organizations is really boring. SEO as a subject can be really interesting, at least to nerds like me, but I can’t tell you how many journalists I’ve spoken with whose least energizing day in the newsroom was the day they were told to cram lots of keywords into their headlines. (I remember sitting through one terrible one in 2007 — and I’m into this stuff!) There could be many people to blame for that — bad trainers? curmudgeonly reporters? poor SEO advice? — but I don’t think it’s something I’m making up.

What do you guys think? How do you see the emphasis on search or on social playing out in your news organization? Am I wrong about SEO training being boring? Is your phone changing how much of your browsing is via search or via social? Let us know in the comments.

Photo of Danny Sullivan by Michael Dorausch used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Chris Taylor

    When I am at the desktop, I am more likely to search as the “active” reader mentioned above while at work, which is the only time I use a desktop or laptop. Otherwise, I find myself discovering news more on social channels. I would bet that most news publishers see a similar trend in their audience. The audience would likely be much more “non-desktop” based during commuting hours and non-working (evening) hours. Is that what you’re seeing out there?

  • Marshall Simmonds

    Hi Joshua.

    Good write up. Definitely a timely discussion given the recent dust-up
    around BuzzFeed’s ‘social overtaking search traffic’ report.

    As a quick aside I’m not sure which SEO expert or company would ever
    recommend cramming “lots of keywords into their headlines,” but they should be promptly fired as they’re putting the network at risk with their audience and the search

    More to the point, last week we did an in-depth analysis of over 87
    sites and across 115 categories of several major publishing networks, including many of the best-known brands on the web. This entailed analyzing 48 billion pageviews and 10 billion visits in 2013. What we found directly refutes BuzzFeed’s claims and shows specifically search traffic exceeding social across publishing – all with a completely transparent methodology. Ultimately BuzzFeed is exceptional at promotion and in this situation (and the subsequent pick-ups of their press-release by The Atlantic and Re/Code) their brand transcends reality.

    “Hey BuzzFeed, Search Traffic is Doing Just Fine”

    -Marshall Simmonds
    Founder – Define Media Group Inc.

  • klausjunginger

    Many lessons pulled down their throat 3 years ago would not yield one reader more these days, as straight keyword placement has lost value – check it out, many queries you do today do not return all the keywords in its title.

    “I think there’s a broad perception in news orgs that social traffic is *more valuable* than search traffic on a pageview-by-pageview basis.”

    Yes, but who on earth would like an article about “how to negotiate your debts credit card debts” and share it? So sharing is important. Than again I ask you to cross the volume of retweets you get and how much traffic they generate.

    I do not think so. If a user gets used to have its interest delivered to him in its timeline or just by visiting the paper’s facebook page why would he sign up for one more email?

    SEO lessons are boring and KW centered
    Anyhting you have to learn from scratch has its “less nice aspects”, Moreover, you don’t want to talk to reporters and to editors about search intent or bounce rate, do you? It has to stay focused on their day-to-day job. And many of the lessons they’ve learned over the past few years still work — they don’t need to keep relearning them, but use’em and be shown what results they bring.

    “It’s also just a matter of momentum”

    Absoutely. You’re right, it is. Search has never been anything like “one drop and you’re ready to go”.
    It takes more time, but you also get better in it with time. Now time
    is the keyword, no time nor resources have ever been given away for
    free at any news room. Keyword research takes time; than again,
    keyword research is not intended for newsroom SEO savvy journalists.
    At the most they toss a look into something like inside for search.
    Editorial planning – great for blogs, not for heard news or can one
    predict whan the next shootout will take place?

    Klaus Junginger
    Journalist / SEO at Estado de S. Paulo

  • AramZS

    Great article, here’s the thing:

    SEO training need not be boring. Having run what I think, hope and have been told is interesting and amusing SEO training sessions, the trick for training journalists in SEO is understanding that journalists (if they’re any good) are about one thing: telling good stories to as many humans as possible.

    Any SEO training should therefore be about that, how to write on the internet so that more people read your story and can understand what you’re talking about. That’s good SEO, storytelling and journalism and it is what journalists understand and want. No one wants to learn how to write better for machines.

    The same is really true when it comes to optimizing for social, successful stories are about writing well for humans in the context of each platform (different headlines or sharelines per-platform are a good reflection of this). The exception is when they’re gaming the system, in which case the heavier optimized stories you see are usually just as much about manipulating the systems they appear on as doing any sort of good journalism.

  • moshepop

    Glad and refreshing to read an article as relevant as this one. I oversee SEO and SEM for, and the comment about SEO Trainings being boring really hit the nail in the head with me. I have designed and executed three SEO trainings in the last three months to two different departments (News, Entertainment) within the company. One objective I set for myself was to make them fun because I had been present in several really boring SEO trainings and I had to control myself and be very patient not to scream or just leave the room as slide after slide of boring guidelines passed in front of me. When I sat to design these trainings it was clear to me I had to find a way to connect at a personal level and to transmit the passion I have for SEO to the teams I train. In short, these are some ways I found to do that:
    -Give editors a sense of purpose and perspective by sharing general search traffic data for the company. Showing how search is just a piece of the traffic pie, but an important one. Talking about the difference between branded and non branded search traffic.
    -Demonstrate with live games (no gamification, just plain games) how a search takes place in real life.
    -Talk about my experiences, struggles, and successes ranking content, and the exhilaration that happens when your content reaches position no. 1, how I went to hug my ugly boss when that happened (previous employer).
    -Use keyword planner as a playing tool, wouldn’t you want to know which one has more search traffic: peace or war?…come on’ admit it you are going to check that out right now.
    -Encourage editors to check the rankings of their content pieces on their own, (as an egotistical measure, ja, ja)
    And these are just a few, in short, the trainings did have positive results, search traffic increased for the period right after they took place.
    As for different types of headlines, descriptions, and thumbnails, for different types of distribution, who know I am thinking that a CMS of the not so distant future will allow us to optimize for each channel differently.
    I do love upworthy endlessly and admire them, but to Danny Sullivan’s point, the other day I was trying to find a piece I saw there and couldn’t do it with search, and I didn’t find it in the website either. Buzzfeed is different they are a little more SEO minded. Can I make this a blogpost?

  • klausjunginger


    I do not think that one can teach style or coherency to an already professional journalist. But I agree that it comes down to show them who is their audience and to stay loyal to it.


  • Tim Leffel

    This is just wishful thinking and surprisingly out of touch: “It’s the rare publication that will find that its search traffic has dropped over the years.”

    Almost every content creator I know that wasn’t part of a big corporation with a huge war chest saw its search traffic decline at some point because of Panda and Penguin, even if they were doing everything exactly by Google’s rules. Many independent content sites and blogs have made it up with social and haven’t looked back. The general feeling is that Google is heavily favoring big brands spending a lot on advertising. So he’s right that Huffpo, New York Times, and major magazine sites haven’t seen a decline. For the independent ones though, a whole different story.

  • Ronaldo Tumbokon

    Yes, I would imagine an SEO training that consists merely of stuffing keywords in the headline can be boring (and also misleading). :) Our SEO training includes making headlines enticing to click, what quality content is (that humans and search engines love), the relationship between SEO and social (why putting your story out there is important), and how to avoid the pitfalls that prevent stories from making it in the Google News index.

  • Aaron Bradley

    “In most news organizations I know of, SEO gets less emphasis than it used to. Part of that is because the lessons they’ve learned over the past few years still work — they don’t need to keep relearning them.”

    SEO is an extremely dynamic discipline, and strategies and tactics that successfully improve the visibility of news items in search have changed dramatically “over the past few years.”

    That is to say successful digital marketing (which includes SEO) requires continual learning, with the appropriate additions and revisions to current marketing strategy.

    One does not need to keep “relearning” lessons of the past, but those that believe there is no need to learn and apply new lessons are missing the boat: while those old approaches might be considered to “still work,” what in fact is happening is that traffic and visibility is being left on the table (and in all likelihood what was considered to be “working” wasn’t living up to the potential in any case).

    Interestingly – and obviously relevant to this discussion – one of the many things that’s changed in the past few years is that search and social tactics have become structurally much more closely aligned. For example, code added to a web page “for search” might also support the generation of Pinterest rich pins, or improve the appearance of tweets by a news organization.

    So failure to keep pace with SEO changes means that news organizations may also fail to keep pace with related changes in social media optimization. And this is demonstrably the case with most news organizations which – despite their apparent love affair with social traffic – do an extremely poor job (especially when it comes to on-site or on-page optimization) of optimizing for social.

    As Danny points out, “both the search and social platforms are trying to appeal to the humans that use them.” So it should not be surprising that there is significant overlap between them.

  • AramZS

    I think professional journalists can totally learn new styles and adapt to the type of coherency that works better on the web than in print. Things like headings, basic HTML techniques, basic SEO stuff, all that can make it more readable, better for users.

  • AramZS

    Like I said above, optimizing for social is just another type of gaming the system, and the results aren’t necessarily good: “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.”

  • HowdyNSA

    What a sneak you are! You said:

    “If there’s one thing I do disagree with Danny on, it’s this: Most SEO training in news organizations is really boring. ”

    Then you explained why you disagreed with “what Danny said”

    “SEO as a subject can be really interesting, at least to nerds like me, but I can’t tell you how many journalists I’ve spoken with whose least energizing day in the newsroom was the day they were told to cram lots of keywords into their headlines.”

    There is a slight problem though. It was YOU who said that SEO training is boring up in the yellow colored section, not danny.

    “…..That led to a lot of journalists sitting through boring SEO training….”

  • Joshua Benton

    You might want to read that a little more closely.

  • Matt Diaz

    Since the web is not the dominant interaction model on mobile, web search is less central, which leads to a diversity of discovery and acquisition channels for news and information.

    In part because of this, there is tremendous opportunity for new platforms to come in and create value for end users.

    On mobile in particular, social channels have been successful in leveraging their emergent networks of users to enrich the distribution and presentation of news and information, and it’s clear that they will make up an ecosystem that is larger, richer, and more diverse than it is on desktop.

    At the same time it will be fascinating to see how Google’s massive machine learning infrastructure can leverage data from what will be a highly personal and mobile internet stretching across 3bn smartphones and several hundred million tablets, vs. 1.7 corporate and consumer PCs. The search box is just one possible implementation of one possible solution of one possible approach for its mission to organize the world’s information and make it useful, so is Google Now.

  • Kyle Lelli

    I’m seeing what many may be seeing the opposite of – Mobile search is growing drastically for us, both in relative and absolute terms. Also, the growth in natural language processing and voice search/contextual search will likely have the effect of growing mobile search (and changing mobile search patterns).

    As Danny mentioned, we’re seeing growth in both Social and Search, however, search – as a whole – is still a larger piece of the pie in terms of traffic. In addition, the behavior of searchers on our site is different than Social – more content is consumed (from a PV & Time On Site perspective).

    As many publishers would probably agree, we create content to be shared socially, and this type of content we KNOW won’t get searched for, nor do we care. We also create content that we want to have longevity in search, which can also do well in social.

    Though certainly not as exhaustive as Marshall’s study, in casual conversations I’ve had with others in publishing, search is still a larger piece of the pie.

    It’s about having a good portfolio and understanding what your particular visitors want. At the end of the day, social and search are a means, not and ends. Understanding user behavior as a result of how a visitor arrives to your site is the key to growth and user (…reader?) satisfaction.

  • Jonathan Rick

    Great dialogue! One small note: For all Upworthy’s emphasis on headlines, it’s surprising the site doesn’t use more descriptive headlines for its page titles.

    (An article title is what you show your readers; a page title is what you show search engines. As documented in, many leading publications separate the two to maximize SEO.)

  • jimmy orr

    This is a really good discussion. Thank you, Joshua.

    Search and social go hand-in-hand. It’s not an all or nothing game. SEO is not dead. SEO helps you get content read and it helps social media.

    I see it everyday. We watch how the two channels work together.

    For example, a post initially may do well in search. People read it. They share it. So the initial boost of traffic may come from Search. Depending on how someone reacts to it, it could then take off on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or whatever.

    Search feeds social. Social influences Search. The better you are in social affects how you do in Search. Thus, why pushed for (and attained) 100% newsroom compliance on Google+. We may not see huge numbers right away (like we may see on Facebook — but it’s an investment. Future-proofing, as they say).

    The same of “all or nothing” attitude negatively affects Social too. IE: “We get more numbers on Facebook so we should put our emphasis there and forget Twitter.” How dumb. Twitter feeds Facebook. Feeds LinkedIn too. Feeds Pinterest. They all work together.

    SEO is critical. And will continue to be so.

    As for the charge that it’s boring. It’s not. Once you practice solid SEO principles and see your article traffic go from 40 views to 40,000 views, it can be pretty damn exciting.