In the past couple of months many people started claiming that Social Media Marketing is becoming more important than search engine optimization. While there is no doubt about the fact that Twitter, Facebook et al. are driving an increasing amount of traffic to websites, it is also not as simple as saying that only social media marketing counts and you should forget about all the rest – the reality is: it depends!
Search engines have always been (and will continue to be) the most efficient way to find long-tail content. If you need some quick information on a very specific topic (perhaps you are looking for ideas about baking with fresh, frozen and canned peaches), then it is highly unlikely that your friends just shared this information on a social network.
Very different story for popular, current content like opinions on the new Harry Potter movie or updates on politics. In this case, social media is far more important for driving traffic to your website as friends like to share and discuss such content. At the same time this social media traffic is not necessarily replacing search engine traffic but often direct traffic (as people don’t go directly to a content website anymore but rather use Facebook to discover stories). Very often the social media traffic is even incremental as better discovery drives more visits.
I checked the Google Analytics numbers of a few content websites in our portfolio and they seem to generally prove my point: search engine traffic is stable / slightly growing, social media traffic is increasing significantly with some of the traffic being incremental and some having replaced direct traffic.
As a side effect of content discovery becoming more efficient (both through search engines as well as social networks), the page view / visit ratio has been declining constantly over the past couple of years as people are finding the right content quicker and spending less time on a website looking for information. Which is good news / bad news for publishers: unique visitors numbers tend to go up, engagement metrics tend to go down.
So if you run a website, focus on all 3 areas: search engine optimization, social media marketing but most importantly building up direct traffic.