Why is social media rubbish at driving website traffic?

How often is “driving traffic to our website” cited as a goal for social media activity?

And how does social media as a traffic driver compare to other channels such as search and referral?

It is easy enough to answer that question when looking at your own website. Just look at your Google Analytics data and you can see in seconds just how social stacks up as a driver of web traffic.

But what about other websites? How can we easily and cheaply understand how competitors are doing in terms of their social media activity in relation to generating web traffic?

Step forward SimilarWeb.

This splendid tool (even in its free incarnation) provides some excellent insight into how other websites get traffic from different sources.

And once you’ve been using SimilarWeb for a while, you begin to see an emerging pattern. Unless you are Buzzfeed or a big media site like The Guardian, the chances are that the amount of traffic being sent to a site is low compared to search, referrals or direct. Typically, less than 5pc of a site’s traffic is being sent via social. (*)

Buzzfeed generates nearly 50pc of its traffic via social media. The BBC only gets 5pc via social media.

Which begs the question, why?

Clearly there are a number of possible explanations. Not least of which is that as the amount of content (and website links) being shared on all social platforms continues to rise, everyone is just drowning in content — and thus we probably never even have the opportunity to click a link let alone see it.

Or is it that social media content isn’t being optimised properly in order to drive traffic?

It is interesting to see that even those media organisations (like Buzzfeed or the BBC) that generate enormous amounts of content don’t necessarily see all of it generate masses of traffic (one way to consider this is to look at the amount of amplification that a site’s content gets. Buzzsumo shows for example that Buzzfeed typically generates around 300+ pieces of new content per day — but very often this content receives very little in the way of sharing and amplification — which suggests that it won’t get much traction in the way of traffic. Then again, even shared links won’t necessarily get clicked).

So should we all give up and go home?

Not necessarily. But it probably does require us to be a bit more realistic about exactly what social media can and can’t achieve. Expecting social media to drive half of your website traffic is not impossible but highly improbable. And even throwing more money and resource at the problem isn’t necessarily going to solve it.

It may not be a narrative people want to hear, but perhaps we’d all be better off by taking a more rigourous approach to goal setting and using the tools and data at our disposal to build a more accurate sense of what is more likely to work than not. And thus spare ourselves from committing to targets and expectations that have no real hope of being achieved. Or accepting that social media is good for certain things and not others. Or not making assumptions about how social media is actually used by people.

Better still, if we use attribution analysis, at least we can see whether social media tends to drive fewer but more valuable visitors. This kind of technique can be easily set up in Google Analytics. But how many organisations are actually looking at social media traffic from this perspective? I suspect the answer is: not that many.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

(*) To be clear, this is for desktop traffic. As we all know, the vast majority of social media activity happens on mobile devices. However, I’m confident that the amout of web traffic sent via social media on mobiles isn’t going to be radically different — or least in terms of the kind of website that most non-media organisations possess.