The Power Of Passed Links

Links are the currency of the web. That's the reason that Google is the king of the web right now. Google generates more click thrus to more websites than any other web service out there.

But I've been ruminating on a comment that was left on my earned media post a few weeks ago by Ben Straley.

One of the issues not addressed directly in your deck is the impact
earned media has on site visits and conversion rates. With respect to
the former, on average one out of five (20%) site visits come from
links shared via earned media. Microsoft and MTV did a study in 2007
(Circuits of Cool) that found that among the thousands of 14-24 yos
they surveyed, 88% of the links they followed were sent to them by
friends. They're not clicking on ads or even using search results as
much as older demos. With respect to the conversion rates, we find a
pretty consistent 2-4x lift in conversion rates for visitors that
arrive on our customers' sites by way of shared links. Razorfish
published a study a couple of months ago that pegged the conversion
lift from shared links at 4x.

We are working our connections to get a copy of that "Circuits of Cool" study but in the meantime, I've been studying refer logs of every website I can get a look at and digging deep on this search links vs passed links distinction. I want to understand if the 2-4x bump in conversion better. I also want to look at this 14-24 year old demo a bit more closely. My kids are in that demo and they start and end their day at Facebook so it is not entirely surprising to me that for that demo, a passed link is more powerful than one found on search.

To make this simple for me, I've been exclusively focusing on four kinds of links;

1) Google – search (organic and paid), driven by intent
2) Email – a passed link sent via email from one friend to another
3) Facebook – a passed link sent from one friend to many friends
4) Twitter – a passed link sent out for anyone who cares to see it

Here's a "STRAWMAN" of what a typical website (typical of the ones I've been looking at) would see from these four sources:

Strawman traffic

I capitalized the word "strawman" because I am not saying this is the typical traffic patterns all websites are seeing. I just wanted to frame the discussion so we can talk about these various links and why each is important.

From my unscientific survey, I don't see the 2-4x bump in passed link conversion. The "value per visit" column in my strawman is the conversion metric I've been focused on. I do see that email passed links convert 2-4x search. I do see that Facebook links do convert better than search but only slightly. And from what I can tell, Twitter links don't convert quite as well as search.

I don't yet have a framework yet to think about Twitter links vs search links, but the fact that email and Facebook links convert better than search makes sense to me. An email link is a direct suggestion from one friend to another. A Facebook link is a suggestion passed from one friend to a group of friends. I get that those links would be more potent than a search link. And I understand why a Facebook is a more potent link than a Twitter link since Facebook is friends following friends, and Twitter is more like blogging where people follow other people who aren't necessarily friends.

But the other important metric to look at is growth rates. That's where the power of earned media is really showing up. I am seeing links from Facebook and Twitter growing rapidly relative to search links in every refer log I look at. Right now, I am seeing Twitter and Facebook combined at roughly 20% of Google in the average refer log. Six months, that number was less than 10%. Presumably that ratio will continue to grow.

Email is also growing as more people are passing links and clicking on links in email. But it doesn't have the scale of the social media platforms because its one to one and does not take advantage of the one to many nature of most social media platforms.

This is really preliminary thinking I am presenting here. It is not based on a fully representative sample. It is anecdotal at best. But this is an important discussion. I'd love to hear from all of you, many of whom are working in search and social media marketing. If you can, I'd love to see more data like this posted on the web. If you can share data, please post it on your blog and leave a link in the comments, or a simple comment with whatever data you can share would be great too.

I suspect there will be at least one and probably several follow-up posts on this topic in the coming weeks.

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