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Feb. 11, 2014, 11:45 a.m.

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.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 11, 2014, 11:45 a.m.
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