Social Media as Website Referral Traffic

Look at your website’s social referral traffic, and tell me what you see. Compared to five years ago, three years ago, even one year ago, has it gone up or down? Certainly there are exceptions, but by and large the amount of traffic driven to most websites from social media has increased over the past few years. It’s increased by not an insignificant amount; according to a recent report published by Shareaholic, social media has become the top source of website referral traffic.

What Does Referral Traffic Mean?

First, it’s important to understand that the report is only saying that social media is the #1 source of referral traffic – not organic search traffic, not direct traffic, not paid traffic. Referral traffic includes visits to your website that were directed there from other links around the web. This is typically another website, but it also includes social network referrals, like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, for example.

Facebook is the #1 Social Referrer

Like its aptly named biopic, Facebook is THE Social Network when it comes to referral traffic. This stat probably comes as no surprise, but what I find interesting is just how much Facebook’s influence continues to grow at the expense of the other major social networks. The Shareaholic report states that Facebook accounts for roughly a quarter of all website traffic. All. The three year increase is staggering, surpassed only in relative percentage points by Pinterest’s growth. Each of the 6 remaining “major” social networks has actually decreased in share.

Now let’s think about our own traffic again. With access to a number of Google Analytics accounts I thought I’d do a spot check. I found that social referral traffic doesn’t account for a significant amount. Out of context, you’d think they were doing a poor job with their marketing. When you consider what types of businesses they are, what their overall marketing efforts include and, of course, what their website goals are – it makes sense. Think about your own consumption of the web. For folks that consider themselves active users of social networks, from which do you tend to click on links the most?

Facebook vs Twitter as a News Source

When I was on Shareaholic’s site, I noticed a list of some of their prominent clientele. A majority were news websites. It stands to reason that a news site is going to benefit heavily from social referrals. While my initial spot check didn’t yield results that matched the report, I thought of a site I have access to that would: a personal site I manage for our local running club. Sure enough, when I looked at its analytics, traffic from Facebook is nearly double our traffic from Twitter. For perspective: our club’s Facebook page has an audience of about 140 while our Twitter profile has nearly 2,000 followers.

It’s a little phenomenon that I’ve seen chatter about recently, how Twitter as a traffic source just never yields the results publishers might expect. If you use Twitter, then you’ve probably done this before: shared/retweeted a post that linked to an article that you didn’t read. I’ll admit, I’m guilty. I’ve retweeted things based on the title, caption, maybe an image, or even on the authority of the publisher that I haven’t read. Perhaps Twitter users have become too efficient at telling a story in 140 characters or less that we’ve trained ourselves to not need more than that.

What About the Rest?

I signed up for a Pinterest account so I could familiarize myself with it as a platform. I never use it. It doesn’t speak to me, I don’t see the value in it (for me), and I certainly don’t have the time to waste playing on it. But, people are using it, and it’s become a valuable source of driving traffic back to a website. However, YouTube’s influence has been completely razed, dropping by nearly 100 percentage points since 2011. LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, even Reddit are all similar stories. And while a few of my friends use Google Plus (more out of steadfast refusal to let Facebook win), it’s not driving much traffic back to websites.

What Does This Mean for Me?

Social media means different things for different businesses. In the business-to-consumer space it likely has a bigger impact than in the B2B space. We prefer to focus our efforts on activities that are going to help us grow. There are inherent benefits to driving more traffic to your website, but if it’s not qualified traffic, is it worth allocating the resources to it?

My takeaway from this report is that Facebook is going to continue to be a significant source of website traffic, and it’s likely worth the time to develop a content marketing strategy that includes it (if you don’t already). But, we shouldn’t rely on it as our sole source of traffic, and, like with any marketing initiative, we need to determine goals and objectives.

Ryan McGrath is a Marketing Consultant at G.1440. He uses Google Plus as an inside joke with two other friends, who try to get strangers to add them to their circles on the social network. He can be reached at