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Is Facebook Traffic Really Outperforming Google?

Buzz Feed Referral Traffic-slide0
(Chart via Re/

In short, the answer may be “really not really.”

Referral Traffic to
via Recode

In the past few days claims and counter claims have run wild in response to Peter Kafka's Re/code article “The Year Facebook Blew Past Google", In the article Kafka points to a Buzz Feed analytic chart tracking the referral traffic from Goolge and Facebook to the site. The chart, which tracks data from the end of 2011 to the close of 2013 presents compelling evidence that 2013 may have crowned Facebook the new king of driving web traffic. (see the chart here).

If Kafka's claim is applicable across the internet then it's understandable why the article caused controversy among content marketers and publishers alike and even inspired spinoff versions of Kafka's piece. Robinson Meyer from the Atlantic titled his take on the topic “And Just Like That, Facebook Became the Most Important Entity in Web Journalism,” a grandiose title that undoubtedly served its real purpose.

Marshall Simmonds, CEO of Define Media Group, makes his living as being one of the top online traffic consultants in the industry. If Facebook were outperforming Google as a traffic source Simmonds would be the first to take note, but he claims it's just not the case and accuses Kafka's article and those like it of jumping the gun. He attributes this recent trend of overemphasizing the performance of Facebook traffic to a fundamental misunderstanding of how search works. He places the blame on flaws in Buzz Feed's methodology.

What exactly I s Buzz Feed's methodology? The site garners the bulk of its traffic through social shares of their most popular content, which is composed of titles like “Video Game Facts As Told By Cats” and “These Girls Built The Most Epic Snow Penis Sculpture Of All Time.” In web content publishing industry, these types of articles are referred to as evergreen content, as it's not identified as news and it's note time sensitive.

“It’s no surprise BuzzFeed’s network and methodology is obviously biased towards more socially oriented publishers. However, it is irresponsible to make emphatic claims based on a biased methodology, and it’s even more irresponsible to report on this information without truly understanding the data and the industry which has seen massive flux in the past 24 months” said Simmonds.

There may be a point to Simmond's argument. Comscore shows that from November 2013 to January 2014, the majority of publishers who derive their inbound audience from social media actually saw a decline in their traffic. According to Comscore, Huffington Post's traffic dropped by 16 percent. Vice declined in traffic by 22 percent, BroBible by 17 percent. Sites known for viral video content like Upworthy and Traffic Elite saw more than 45 percent decline in their traffic. (See the chart here)

Men lie; women lie; numbers don't. But if there is still any value in the expertise of an authority on a subject, Marshall Simmonds stands firm on his claim that “not only is organic search alive and well, but it’s more important than any other external traffic driving source.”

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