The Great Social Media Traffic Debate: Niche or General Networks?
While I prepare to relocate (I’m moving next week!), I was fortunate to have the help of James Duthie, a serial guest blogger from Online Marketing Banter, a blog on social media, marketing, and more.? You can subscribe to more of his ramblings here.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post over at SEO Scoop comparing the quality of search engine traffic against social media traffic. The aim of my little experiment was to test the assumption that search traffic was of a higher quality than social media traffic. And as most would have guessed, the mighty engines prevailed as the superior source of traffic. Many people found the research interesting, but a number of people commented that the social networks probably shouldn’t be grouped together. Some are built for the masses whereas others have tightly defined niche audiences. So the question arose – was social media traffic misrepresented by grouping traffic from all networks together? Is traffic from highly targeted niche networks better than traffic from generic networks? (Hat tip to Gab for posing that question to me.) Let’s find out.
To help me in this quest for the truth I enlisted the help of a couple of my fellow online marketing and SEO buddies. Gab Goldenberg and Steven Bradley came to the party and donated their site stats for analysis, thereby providing three data points for observable trends (along with my own site). Three cheers for them!
Let the Social Media Traffic Quality Analysis Begin
In order to answer the question of whether niche social media drives higher quality traffic, two social networks were chosen for analysis — one generic and one niche. Let’s get ready to rumble…
- Generic network: StumbleUpon: In the blue corner we have Stumbleupon – one of the largest social bookmarking sites on the web. While some argue that StumbleUpon traffic is targeted, the broad nature of content categories and misclassification of content means this is rarely the case. As such, it has been selected as the generic social network of choice.
- Niche network: Sphinn: In the red corner we have Sphinn – a social news network dedicated purely to online marketing news and discussion. All three sites at the centerr of this analysis sit within the online marketing and search industry. Subsequently, Sphinn is perhaps the most relevant niche social network on the web.
In order to provide an assessment of the quality of traffic driven by each network, four site metrics were analyzed:
- Average page views
- Time on site
- Bounce rate
- Percentage of returning visitors
Let’s see what the figures reveal.
Round 1: Average Page Views
Average page views is the first indicator of traffic quality, demonstrating the propensity of a user to explore a site beyond the initial click. Logic says that the more pages a user views, the higher their level of engagement with the site. Unfortunately for StumbleUpon, users rarely seem to explore beyond the initial page, with the average page views hovering just above 1:
- Online Marketing Banter — 1.36 page views
- SEO ROI — 1.2 page views
- Van SEO Design — 1.15 page views
While a parity in page views exists between social networks for Online Marketing Banter, both SEO ROI and Van SEO Design experience higher engagement levels from Sphinn members. It’s likely that the technical nature of content on SEO ROI and Van SEO Design rarely hits the target audience in StumbleUpon. Indeed the most appropriate categories of “Marketing” and “Science/Tech” are extremely broad and unlikely to deliver traffic with an interest in SEO. Conversely, with a slightly more generic subject matter (and the occasional gag post), Online Marketing Banter seems to be a little more popular with Stumblers.
Nevertheless, Sphinn takes out round 1 based on the enhanced engagement levels seen in 2 of the 3 blogs.
Round 2 – Time on Site
The average time spent on a site is a secondary measure of reader engagement. Naturally, the more time a user spends on a site, the higher the level of perceived engagement. And the data provides a very strong indication that users from niche networks spends far more time consuming content. In fact, the additional time spent on each site ranged from 25 seconds up to 72 seconds!
The browsing intent of the audience is likely to be a significant factor in the disparity in engagement levels. Most Stumblers are casual browsers by nature who use the network to discover new and interesting content. Professional content probably isn’t a priority. On the other hand, Sphinn is a professional network dedicated to industry news. Users are actively seeking information that will enhance their professional knowledge. So it comes as no surprise to learn that they are more committed to information digestion.
Subsequently, Sphinn knocks StumbleUpon to the canvas and takes out round 2.
Round 3 – Bounce Rate
Bounce rate is the third and final measure of reader engagement. Bounce rate measures the proportion of users who leave a site without visiting a second page, a common trait amongst social media users. At first glance it appears that StumbleUpon holds the upper hand, with a lower bounce reported on both Online Marketing Banter and Van SEO Design.
However, bounce rate data for StumbleUpon is misleading. The StumbleUpon toolbar often pre-fetches a page before displaying it to a Stumbler in order to help it load faster. When this process occurs two page views are counted instead of one, thereby lowering the bounce rate. This trend is discussed further by Jamie Harrop and Rebecca Murphey. Unfortunately, this anomaly renders StumbleUpon’s bounce rate data invalid. After all, how could Van SEO Design maintain a bounce rate of just 58.2% in StumbleUpon when the average number of page views from that source is just 1.15…?
Unfortunately, round 3 has been tainted with StumbleUpon attempting to bite off Sphinn’s ear. No clear winner can be declared.
Round 4 – Percentage of New Visitors
The percentage of new visitors provides a basic metric for user loyalty. While not a perfect measure, it gives an indication of the proportion of visitors who return to the site after first discovering it. And the evidence is fairly damning for StumbleUpon, with less than 5% of visitors ever returning to a site they discovered:
- Online Marketing Banter — 97.6% new visitors
- SEO ROI — 96.5% new visitors
- Van SEO Design — 97.2% new visitors
While Sphinn itself doesn’t generate outstanding loyalty from members, its users are significantly more likely to return to a site they found. However, it should be noted that the smaller pool of sites submitted to Sphinn means there is an increased likelihood that users will re-encounter a previous site.
Despite this, Sphinn clearly wins the fourth and final round.
The judges are unanimous and the decision is in: niche social networks do indeed have the ability to drive higher quality traffic than generic networks. Members of niche networks view more pages, spend more time on a site and come back more often. And if this post isn’t proof enough for you, check out Steven’s post relating to the quality of forum traffic, which often have even tighter knit communities than Sphinn. Steven reports that the average user from one niche forum stays for more than 7 and 1/2 minutes! Which is nothing compared to a second forum where visitors spend over 16 minutes on the site.
If your social media traffic is unengaged, perhaps you need to reconsider the networks you’re participating in.
A special thanks must go out to Gab Goldenberg of SEO ROI and business card design software, along with Steven Bradley of Van SEO Design. Their valuable input allowed real insights to be made into the topic. Thank you to both of you.