Thinking Critically About Social Referral Data

What should you do for the best social referral data? Like the picture says: Test, test, test!

A couple of weeks ago, Shareaholic published its social media traffic report for the second quarter of 2014.  In it they looked at social media data from 8 of the more well-known sites:  Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit, YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn.  Based on their social referral data, which come from over 300,000 websites, Facebook drives the most traffic to websites, hands down.  Like nearly 25% of all visits.  You might then immediately jump to the conclusion that your business needs to be on Facebook because it’s the best.

Let’s assume the numbers are correct and accurate.  It’s not something I always assume, but in this case I want to thinking about what they mean.  To do that, we have to think about the situation that might have contributed to those numbers.  How do people on those social media sites end up on the various websites that they measured?  In other words, what is the pathway that is being measured?

A Visitor’s Path

The most likely way, of course, is the social share.  Someone shares a link to one of the websites in a social media post.  You know, probably with a comment like, “OMG. This is so cool, you have to see it!” or “Great article” or whatever.  Their friends/followers see the post, click on the link, and *ding*!  They’ve been tracked as referral traffic from a social media site.

So far, so good.  The unsuspecting business owner still says, “Great.  If I’m on Facebook, more people are there, more people will see the post, and more people will click on the link and visit my site!”  Eh.  Not so fast.

The Other Half

If we apply systems thinking concepts to this, we can recognize that we’re only looking at the second half of the full system.  At this point we haven’t looked at how and what gets shared, and that’s where some issues start to be revealed.

Many sites include social sharing buttons.  You know, the little buttons with all the social media sites where you can just hit it to create a new post with the link to that article already filled in.  A person reading an article on a site might copy the web address and paste it into their own post manually.  But many people will use those buttons to share.  And here’s where we start really thinking critically: how much influence do those buttons have on the referral traffic back to the site?

I’ve been on many sites that only have a Facebook and a Twitter button.  I know that sometimes I want to share the article on Google Plus, and have in a few cases, not shared the article because there was not a G+ button.  As a result, my G+ followers didn’t see a link to the page, meaning they didn’t follow it and become a social-referral visitor.  Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are getting higher amounts of exposure because of the buttons, thereby increasing the social shares on those sites.

So here’s the thing:  Is Facebook really driving more traffic, or are websites just more likely to have a “Share on Facebook” button?

We could even go further with this…for example, some social share systems have a place where you can click and reveal a button for all the sites you’ve never even heard of.  But data shows the more clicks you need to do, the fewer people will follow through.  And people are more likely to click the first item than the second one, and so forth.  So even the order of the buttons might make a difference in how and where an article is shared.

The Answer: Look at Your Social Referral Data

The answer to this confusion brings us back to the image on this post:  test, test, test!  The only way to really be sure for your website is to look at your own visitor data.  Just now, I checked the last two months of data for and my other site,  One site got a strangely-round number of 60.0% of social media referral traffic from Facebook.  The other got 9.86% of its social referral traffic from Facebook.

Looking at Shareaholic’s article, you might be tempted to think you have to be on Facebook.  In fact, they say in a bold header, quite definitively, “Facebook is, by an extremely wide margin, the #1 source of social referrals” But I’ve got a site where over 90% of social referrals come from not Facebook.  It gets roughly three times as much traffic from StumbleUpon than Facebook, but from Shareaholic’s standpoint, Stumble upon only drives a measly 0.6% of traffic.

Who am I to believe?  Well, my own numbers, of course.  It doesn’t matter what the average is.  It matters what is working for you.  And if you don’t like what you’re getting, experiment with new things and see if you can improve your results.  That’s why systematic experimentation and testing is usually part of my digital strategy recommendations.  You can’t tell what results you’ll get by looking at averages, and you can’t tell what will work best unless you try different things and measure your outcomes.

Which sites work best for you?  (Or, if you’re not sure, what challenges do you face finding out?)  Leave your answer in the comments.

And don’t forget to share this article on social media by using one of the buttons!

Image source: my own notebook where a friend and I were testing different fountain pens and different inks.  Not social referral data, perhaps, but testing nonetheless.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  2 Comments  |  in Analysis & Testing

About Michael J. Coffey

Michael started learning about online marketing as the web store manager for a scrappy little game retailer during the "dot com bubble" of the 1990s. Since then he's helped fitness companies, tea wholesalers and retailers, lawyers, clothing designers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs in many other fields. In his spare time he drinks very high quality tea, writes letters with a fountain pen, and reads literature.


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