Online publishers of all stripes have invested heavily in search to drive reader acquisition. With a market size approaching $3B in 2013, the SEO industry has thrived on the data feedback loops created by analyzing the keywords that users enter into search engines before arriving at their sites or competitive sites. Yet despite continued growth in user search activity and increasingly sophisticated keyword analysis tools, 2013 is shaping up to be the first year that social media eclipses search as the leading source of referral traffic to publishers. How could this be?
Two parallel trends are driving this sea change. The first is Google's recent shift to encrypt search keywords for a significant segment of search referrals. This move--followed by corresponding browser updates in 2012 by Firefox, Safari on lOS, and now Chrome to use Google SSL search by default--means that up to 39 percent of keyword data has vanished from publisher analytics systems. Less keyword data means fewer content insights, and fewer content insights means lower ROI from SEO. As publishers recognize lower yields from their search strategies, many will moderate their investment in this channel leading to reductions in search referral traffic.
SOCIAL AMPLIFICATION BEHIND THE GROWTH
The second trend is the torrid growth of user-powered content sharing on Facebook and Twitter that has turned a trickle of social media traffic to publisher sites into a flood. It's worth noting that social traffic is not a new phenomenon--consumers have been sharing web content and URLs with friends and colleagues via email since the first Mosaic browser was released in 1993. What has changed is the way that social media sites structure and amplify a person's network connections. The New Yorker article URL that was emailed to 10 friends back in 2005 would today be posted to 500 friends on Facebook and 1,000 Twitter followers. And as the Likes, Shares, and Retweets pile up, the reach and traffic impacts get …