The Power Of Passed Links (continued)

Ben Straley left the comment that inspired my initial post on this topic. And last night, he left another comment that is a blog post in its own right. So here it is in its entirety. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

The following are a few more data points and comments I want to add to the discussion:

1.    Recap of a Hitwise study published on DMNews – Visits from Facebook are greater than visits from Google on a few major sites across several verticals. Are sharing and “social discovery” more important sources of traffic than search in certain verticals?  Is this a harbinger of things to come across a larger swath of Web sites?

2.    The average % of traffic from passed links varies considerably by vertical.  We suspect some of this is due to the demographics of the audience on a given site.  Also, the content found in some verticals is just much more likely to get passed along than in others.  For example, we see % of traffic from shared links on games sites well into the 25-40% range.  Sites/campaigns that promote strong offers also receive a significant % of their traffic from shared links – in the 20-30% range.  In contrast, B2B sites with more static content receive a far lesser benefit from shared links – somewhere in the 3-7% range.

3.    This is closely related to point 2 above.  Content matters most of all.  If you’ve got good content and make it easy for people to link to it, it will be shared and attract a lot of visitors.  We’ve seen this work over and over.  We tracked the pass-along of links pointing to two campaigns running concurrently for the same product (different micro-sites).  One of them had a good offer but so-so content while the other campaign had great (funny) content with no offer.  The % of unique visitors generated by the pass-along of links to the good offer was under 10%  while the traffic from the pass-along of the links to the good content was over 40%.  The campaign with good content also got significantly more traffic overall.  What data like this suggests is that the prediction you make in your deck about dollars shifting from media to content is a really good one in my opinion.  As marketers compete for the attention and interest of their audience, the best way to do this is through content that’s delivered to them via their social graph.  This already happens if the content’s good.  There just isn’t enough of it.

4.    We haven’t looked at this yet but I’m extremely curious to know what ,if any, correlation there is between the number (or %) of visitors from passed links and the number (or %) of visitors from organic search 30-60 days later or however long it takes for the search bots to update their indices.  It stands to reason there’s a positive correlation between the two metrics but we haven’t done the number crunching yet.  Could traffic from shared links be an early indicator of improved SEO performance given the proliferation of back links?

5.    The strawman you’ve built above is a good stab at an analytical framework for estimating the absolute value of shared links.  I think it makes sense to take it a few steps further.  If I’m an online marketer paying an eCPM/eCPC/eCPA for some % of traffic to my site and conversions (if I’m doing direct response), then I’m probably also encouraging people to pass-along links via Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.  While the reach of the latter set of activities is no doubt lower than what I can reasonably expect to obtain from a paid media campaign, I should also expect that the eCPC/eCPA for shared links is much, much lower due to consistently higher click-through and conversion rates for these links.  So, as I think about how to optimize the performance of my campaign, I need to be thinking about how I should be shifting dollars within as well as across these very different but complementary sets of activities.  Also, my paid media can stimulate pass-along which should be factored into my calculations of the true ROI of my advertising campaign.  We’re still pulling the data on this which I’ll share as soon as we have it.

6.    In most cases where traffic and conversions from shared links are high, we see a HUGE amount of activity driven initially by vertically-oriented blogs and community forums before it goes “mass social” by making its way up to Facebook for example.  In calculating true value of shared links, it’s important to factor in the niche sites and communities in your vertical.  The numbers might be relatively small but their significance huge.  In one case, we saw a niche site send several hundred visitors to a marketer’s campaign micro-site in a 2-week period.  This placed that referring site well down the list of top-referrers (something like #25).  Not very interesting.  But using our sharing tracking and measurement technology, our customer watched as the visitors from that niche site drove well over fourteen thousand additional visitors to the campaign micro-site via links shared in email, IM, on blogs, forums, and, of course, Facebook etc.  Niche sites matter.

7.    Meteor Solutions hasn’t been in business long enough to have longitudinal data to do trend analysis yet.  However, we do see sites/campaigns that cater to a younger audience receive a higher percentage of their traffic from shared links.  (See my comment about games sites above)  When I take a step back and look at my own behavior, I also have a hard time denying the fact that my media consumption habits and behaviors have changed in the last 18-24 months.  I’m getting more and more of my information from the people I’m connected to through email, IM, RSS, Facebook, and Twitter.  Also, the nature of the searching I’m doing now is much more targeted and specific.  I won’t search as much for content or something that’s happening now because I’ve probably already received the link from someone I know or follow.  The links that are relevant to me and timely find their way to me these days with remarkable efficiency.

8.    The most popular mode of sharing we see is email (25% of visits from passed links come from links shared through email), followed by blogs (18% of visits from passed links come from links shared through blogs), video sharing sites (14% of visits from passed links come from links shared through video sharing sites like YouTube), and forums/message boards (11% of visits from passed links come from links shared through forums and message boards).  Social networks account for around 9% of the traffic from shared links.  I pulled these stats from our Meteor Tracker data which does not yet contain a representative sample of sites of varying sizes across all verticals.  It isn’t yet representative of the Web as a whole

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Comments (Archived):

  1. awilensky

    It figures the least effective way to share links is email, that is used by all of my friends and family. They just can’t be bothered to go to delicious, and wont use the share me widgets because the mode is too obscure. A instant click share for twitter would be best.

    1. fredwilson

      Email is the most effective he says

      1. awilensky

        I meant that it figures that what was found to be most often used is the most unwieldy. It take more clicks and the shared links are harder to manage – which doesn’t seem to matter to most people, but mean everything to me.

        1. fredwilson

          Got it

      2. leigh

        Interesting to see how this starts to change with younger demo seemingly abandoning email.However, when clients say (which they do often) that they think email is not for them, i’ll now add these stats to my long list of “email is dead” myth busters

  2. Alan Warms

    Fred I commented via twitter to @fredwilson – be cool if I could have figured a way to make that happen back here. Wanted my followers to see the thread. Should I have started it here?

    1. fredwilson

      Yes, add twitter to your disqus profile and you’ll see a checkbox where you can twitter the comment

  3. Aaron Klein

    Fred,I can personally vouch for the accuracy of this. Interestingly, my “new visitors” blog traffic is driven as follows: 35% Facebook, 29% Google and somewhere between 10% and 20% Twitter.(The Twitter ambiguity comes from the fact that only 6% of traffic is logged from, but my links published on Twitter show a lot of TweetDeck click-throughs.)I only wish and feedburner were directly trackable in Google Analytics, so I could get a per-post breakdown of exactly how much traffic is repeat from feeds and e-mail, and how much is organic growth from either passed or searched links.Aaron

  4. Michael Lewkowitz

    As an aside, this post is another great reminder of how critical metrics and tracking are in the social web. If you are measuring it you are running blind. And tracking/measurement is going to be the basis of what’s needed to make the realtime web deliver relevance.

  5. theschnaz

    This line really struck a chord with me, “I’m getting more and more of my information from the people I’m connected to through email, IM, RSS, Facebook, and Twitter. Also, the nature of the searching I’m doing now is much more targeted and specific.”I started to think about where/how I hear about the media I like (blogs, books, movies, music, games etc.) and I noticed a natural dichotomy between short and long time commitments.I consider books and blogs to be a long commitment; you can put in a lot of time reading these. Now, I only make a long commitment if a friend or a trusted source recommended it. I thought about the last 5 blogs and books that I’ve read and all have been previously recommended. Seth Godin mentioned this idea on his blog recently, when you start a book, you’re “supposed” to finish it, no one wants to read through one they don’t like. How will you know if you’d like it? Your friend recommended it.Short commitments include music, movies and games. I’ll listen to a CD because I’ve heard a song on the radio or I’ll see a movie because I saw the trailer. If a friend recommends an album or movie, all the better, but it’s not required. A movie only takes 2 hours of my time, so if it’s bad, no big deal.I think this is why Daily Candy and Thrillist are so successful. They act as trusted sources (similar to a friend) that recommend things. If Thrillist suggests something, chances are I’ll like it and their readers will too (I have personal experience with this.)For search, now that I have a G1, almost all of my searches are hyper-specific/local (finding locations, store hours, bus schedules, etc.) I never search for new books or blogs.To summarize, I’ll only consider buying or reading media that requires a long commitment if it has been recommend by a trusted source. Media that requires a short commitment can still be “pushed” to me through commercials or “traditional” marketing techniques.I’d love to hear this community’s thoughts. Think about the last 5 books/blogs you’ve read, how did you hear about them?Greg

  6. Mike Su

    Just a quick point specifically on #4 – I don’t think you get much linkback credit via social sharing. I believe most of FB, since it’s behind a password wall, will never get crawled by the spiders (not sure about this), but I know for a fact Twitter no-follows all external links, so you definitely won’t get any credit for that. Throw in the mix various URL shortening services that handle redirects in varying degrees of SEO friendliness, and I believe the impact is minimal. But the traffic is gold. And, if every 100 or 1000 social links shared leads to one blog link on a decent pagerank blog, then that’s still worthwhile.

  7. Udo Szabo

    Fred, you might be interested in an article a colleague of mine wrote a couple of weeks ago about the same topic – Ian Kennedy calls it the “Unified Theory of Interweb Economics”.The theory goes something like this: 1. Advertising is a function of your traffic volume, the more traffic come to your site, the higher rates you can charge. 2. Social sites such as Facebook and Twitter have a lot of link sharing going on as friends post links to share them with each other. 3. When Facebook and Twitter send more traffic than Google search referrals, advertising dollars will follow the source of that traffic. 4. Google’s dominance in online advertising will be threatened.The full story can be found on Ian´s blog here:

    1. avertiz

      Udo…As a marketer I like the theory but in practice I think the paradigm shift will come not only when the traffic moves but also when the trust factor shifts. Google has spent quite a bit of time, effort and money to brand themselves as the “good company”. From the “do no evil” to the environmental funds, they have always believed that if people trust a company to do good then they’ll also trust them with their money (in this case, with their searches).That is something that I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg and co. understand (or at least not until recently). Facebook operates under the concept that you interact with those who have similar likes and dislikes and that by building a bridge between people Facebook is inherently a good company and trustworthy. The problem is that their recent PR blunders with their terms of service and the whole Beacon fiasco have moved them into the distrust column. Add to that the fact that users are up in arms about redesigns and you have a company that has a somewhat harsh relationship with its userbase.In my opinion, money will definitely flow into Facebook, but until they can create a feeling of trust within their “walls” they won’t be able to generate ROI for their advertisers (trust flows through the web – if people don’t trust the link they’ll also mistrust the product or service being sold). And that’s one thing that we can count as certain – marketers will ALWAYS follow the ROI, and that’s why Google is still King. There is very little out there that returns the kind of ROI and volume than Google does.

      1. Udo Szabo

        @avertiz – absolutely agree that the notion of “trust” is critical to any social personal experience. You have to give credit to FB so that they are actively pushing the boundaries in this space, at the cost of tapping into the fire every once in a while.What i don’t know if the relation of “trust” discussion between the people here on the blog and the users in the field. Its always difficult to draw conclusion from small personal research, but as of know i haven’t felt any major trust implications in the many people that use FB or other services in my personal environment. And lets be fair, every users who joined in the past 9 month probably doesn’t even know what “Beacon” is.What we found to be the most difficult part in terms of monetizing the rising amount of social traffic is to bring a users “intent” in “context” of the value it has for a site with an economic incentive. As you share all kind of things over the day with all kind of people that find bits and pieces of your stream more or less relevant optimizing the stream against economic interest is the big task.I am sure somebody will figure it out on the grand scale. Until then expect more vertical models to work that filter the relevant “context” from the users stream by interest, like stocktwits and others do.

    2. fredwilson

      HmmI’ll go read the post

      1. Udo Szabo

        Still pretty rough on the edges. Lets me know where you disagree.

        1. Mark Essel

          Thanks for the link to Ian’s post Udo. Makes you wonder how fast the shifts will be in advertising dollars?Where can we review trends for derivatives/rates of change from internet information flow statistics?

  8. avertiz

    I can truly attest to no. 6 with my own findings – I’ll try to add a bit more insight…One of my key ethnic/multicultural marketing strategies is to find the right niche sites and build strong direct advertising relationships (whenever possible we go beyond traditional IAB placements). What I’ve found and what compliments Ben’s comments is that there is an inherent trust level attributed to each site/placement/etc. People are more likely to pass on links when they trust the source (not just the person providing the link but the site itself). In our trials, we’ve seen that even when shown the same link/ad people pass it on more if it comes from a news source (particularly if focused on a niche/vertical) followed by a message board, a blog, an ethnic portal and finally by social media sites and vehicles (Twitter).What we are seeing is that even if the offer is spot on and the content is compelling we still have a better ROI on passed links when “pushing” them through a trusted source (within a vertical). In the case of many ethnic/multicultural markets that source tends to be ethnic news media. Sites like Facebook, MySpace and such tend to have a lower “trust” value and although they offer high visibility they don’t generate enough ROI (convert) for a direct marketing campaign.Just like Ben mentioned, a lot of the conversations our target markets are having have moved to social media and RSS, however the “trust factor” has not yet made the move. Outside of one-to-one recommendations (IM is a good example), traditional outlets still outweigh social media when it comes to ROI for passed-on links.The big question is when will it change? When will someone put as much stock into a link passed on via a Facebook wall update as one passed on via a news site, blog or message board posting?

  9. Ben Straley

    Hi all. It’s good to hear that others are seeing similar trends in traffic sources etc. To be clear, I do not believe traffic from passed links will surpass search for the foreseeable future. I just think shared links are already driving a meaningful % of visitors for many sites and are one of the most cost-effective and fastest growing sources. What’s not to love about that if you’re a publisher or advertiser?

    1. Ethan Bauley

      What makes you think that passed won’t surpass search sooner than later? A hypothesis I’m playing around with is that Google relatively overvalues links from more complicated publishing technologies (blogs/standard HTML) versus simple publishing tech (Twitter, FB, etc). So, if the velocity and quantity of links from the latter increase at a rate faster than the former, it should change the mix.I think there is some value in looking at things from the POV of the link publisher (and the demo/psycho/technographics of that population)At any rate, thanks for sharing that analysis, Ben really killer! I’m going to pass along a link to it to all my pals…via a link I hard code into a static HTML page;-)

  10. Prokofy

    Re: Are sharing and “social discovery” more important sources of traffic than search in certain verticals? Is this a harbinger of things to come across a larger swath of Web sites?There are two kinds of commerce, 1) the commerce of the bazaar, where you need relationships and intuitive reading of metadata and you pay the price you succeed in haggling, and 2) the commerce of the marketplace, where you don’t need relationships and the price tag is what you pay. A lot of modern civilization is about freeing people from social relationships that made them dependent in order to be able to engage in commerce. All that is happening on the Internet now is that this is being reiterated; social media with its insistence on friending and following and reputational points isn’t magical, it’s retrograde and maybe even plunging us back to the dark ages.I find having a blog in the niche “Second Life” or “virtual worlds”, that other similar niche sites linking to my site, and Twitter and Plurk links produce a significant amount of traffic that pays off, i.e. clicks on the ads. Google search might produce more traffic all together, but not conversion traffic.But what matters is not finding if this is true and answering your question “yes” but what to do about it, and more importantly, what effects it will have on the market in general. If you make all ad campaigns or news distribution follow in the tracks of passed links or sharing among likeminded networks of people, in the belief that this “pays out more,” you are building the closed circuit of the bazaar, where you need a relationship and be a friend of a friend to close a sale. By contrast, open search without relationship metadata tacked on to it is the modern marketplace where you buy something without having to get a word-of-mouth or a handshake to close the deal.You need both. It is undermining the modern open society to force people back into ancient tribal or medieval village grooves where you have to know someone who knows somone to get something or only certain approved castes or craftsmen get to sell things in a closed loop. Merely making this more scaled and automatic by putting it on Twitter so that the “friend” is really a stranger still doesn’t undo the problem of the closed circuit and making the marketplace less flexible ultimately. Not every aspect of commerce can be driven by social media or you will create a very hierarchical society too dependent on powerful aggregators and influencers with too high a bar to enter the market for new business.

  11. Udo Szabo

    Fred & all, we continued the discussion on Ian´s blog with another interesting discovery. What if not only the way traffic get directed is shifting to more social exchanges, but also the quality of this traffic, aka the attention/time spend on the site is higher. Ian has digged out some numbers from his own blog, would be interesting to see if other sites see a similar behavior.Here is the link to the full article “Traffic Sources and Attention”:

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks. I’ll check it out

  12. Mike Su

    Here’s a data point for you: Ashton Kutcher has 1.3mm followers on twitter. He shared a link with great headline to a video of ours yesterday:…How many referrals would you guess we got from his tweet to his 1.3mm followers, and all of their re-tweets?If you guessed 30k, you’d be right.

    1. fredwilson

      A ~2.5% ctrThat’s not badWhen I update twitter with a link to a new blog post, I often get a chartbeat notice that there are 80 or 100 people on my blog at that momentI have close to 19,000 followers so that could be a ctr of as much as 5%I’d be curious what other people see

      1. Mike Su

        I also suspect ctr’s are generally much higher for people with fewer followers. Each follower is probably a personal relationship that is far more apt to click through. For example, I have <100 followers, and when I look at stats for links I share, each link gets ~20 clicks (look at those 10 lines of code in action!!). So that’s >20% ctr, but still only 20 clicks. But it does imply that when it comes to passed links, it’s probably better to have 1000 people with 100 followers share a link than to have 1 person with 100,000 followers share the link. That probably then implies a bunch of other stuff that I’m too lazy to figure out right now.

  13. brendan mcnulty

    i work in games and this would be a metric i would love to get my hands on, and more importantly find some way of stimulating the pass along. its always said if you can measure it, you can optimise it.In terms of undersatnding your dashboard and getting a full perspective on where your traffic is coming from, this could swing spend away from advertising and towards more compelling content creation.