These Social Media Clickbait All-Stars Are Quietly Building Massive SEO Traffic

You may not hear about it, but some of the best SEO work in recent years is being done by sites that are heralded as Social.  Before I get to that, a bit of a rant…

A number of very popular, high-velocity sites renowned for their leveraging of social media have publicly dismissed the value of SEO.  The Atlantic went so far as to claim that Facebook is “the most important entity in web journalism” and “we rarely see search engine optimized (SEO) stories anymore.”  If you believe for a second that they don’t think about SEO, you are smoking Marion Barry vintage crack.  I say this, not only because it’s patently obvious it is considered, but because so many have called us.

More amusing, because we represent a significant chunk of online titles and educate their teams on SEO, I can assure you that many of the stories, the CMS’s they are written on, the executives that pay for them, and the writers that write them ALL consider the value of SEO in the production of some of the most amazing content you are reading.  Some do it better than others, but it’s rare in 2015 that SEO isn’t a stop on the factory floor.

You don’t “see it” because great SEO isn’t some voodoo, cloak-and-dagger endeavor.  Great SEO is part of a greater User Experience being considered.  When that User Experience breaks down anywhere, SEO directly falters because the engines…well, Google…have so much visibility into so many of the Internet’s signals.  To not consider SEO would be negligent.

Many of these All-Star Social sites have investors…from Angels to Venture Capital to later-stage private equity money.  Quite a few have very seasoned investors, from Tier One money or strategically-important industry partners. If you don’t think those guys care about consideration of every traffic channel to their investments…which largely monetize on page views…again, your crack must be high-grade.

Ivory Tower media assaults aside, let’s look at five well-known sites that have done very well for themselves in the era of “clickbait” social media traffic…primarily, through the Facebook Share…while also quietly building more defensible, long-term SEO traffic in the background:

Growth in Organic Search (SEO) traffic to Social Sites
Growth in Organic Search (SEO) traffic to Social Sites (via SimilarWeb)

The first thing you notice is the size of Buzzfeed’s SEO traffic.  The second thing you should take away is the velocity in which it is growing.  Buzzfeed’s SEO audience is doubling every six months or so.  That’s pretty amazing for a publisher of that reach, even by the standards of equivalent-sized publishers who focus almost explicitly on SEO!  Even more compelling is that this data is desktop-only.  Add in mobile, where much of the growth in these categories resides, and it would be even more amazing.

So, as much as we have called out some of Buzzfeed’s social dominance “research”, hats off to Jonah Peretti and that entire team.  Their backgrounds and their product clearly indicate they understand SEO beyond the fundamentals, even if it’s not directly how they consider content success.  They make many of our clients pretty damn nervous on several fronts, but it’s exciting for Online Publishing aficionados to watch their evolution.  Or maybe it’s a revolution?

Among all the sites, you can see the reliance on Social traffic.

Traffic Distribution to top Social Sites
Traffic Distribution to top Social Sites (via SimilarWeb)

We often hear about Google’s somewhat whimsical and punitive algorithms like Panda and Penguin.  Yes, those two assessments can absolutely cripple your business, but publishers have had nearly four years to become familiar with those risks.  Sites that are afflicted by Panda or Penguin are increasingly popping in and out of them as they regain control of their risk.

The biggest risk to these Social sites, and why they are lucky to be growing their recurring Search audiences, is that Facebook is aggressively trying to filter their reach through their News Feed.  It is much more of a “pay-to-play” model now, where you may still get that reach if you want to whip out your wallet to boost that post.

This convoluted approach to scoring all Social traffic as “earned” is seriously disingenuous.  Having been around a few investors and acquirers eyeing these types of content sites, they become much less attractive after seeing how much of that kitchy Social audience is bought and paid for.

As more of these sites are spun out, those once-impressive traffic acquisition margins are being compressed.  Much like most of Paid Search is run at breakeven or even negative margin (that’s another post for another day, but Paid Search is often run by CLTV instead of CPA at big brands), we may soon see Social or clickbait content sites run along the same fiscal lines to build longer term, defensible audiences.  I’d be surprised if that wasn’t happening at more than a few now. As that happens, expect to see the Direct traffic contributions increase for recurring earned audiences.  This metric will differentiate which Sites live on as brands.

Taking a look at the other sites, this trend of SEO traffic becoming a meaningful channel to Social sites continues.  Many are growing Organic Search audience at the same rate as Buzzfeed, albeit in lower absolute numbers.

Organic search visits for Viralnova - SEO
Organic search visits for Viralnova – SEO (via SimilarWeb)
Organic search visits for Distractify - SEO
Organic search visits for Distractify – SEO (via SimilarWeb)
Organic search visits for Playbuzz - SEO
Organic search visits for Playbuzz – SEO (via SimilarWeb)
The one important site that seems to stalling out is Upworthy.
Organic search visits for Upworthy - SEO
Organic search visits for Upworthy – SEO (via SimilarWeb)
This may be because they have done the least amount of on-page search optimization for their content.  While their Organic Search audience size is still relevant, these guys may be the true honey badgers of SEO.  But, you know, if they wanted to add some easy incremental growth…

So, why are these social, clickbaity sites doing so well with SEO?  The answer is links.  Social Media is a massive link building lever and your backlink profile is still the most heavily-weighted component of why you rank for something at the search engines.

A few sites, such as ViralNova, do a great job of creating highly-clickable, compelling Headlines while differentiating their Page Titles (the most heavily-weighted on-page factor) with keyword-rich, but still interesting content.  Because these Page Titles then become the clickable link in the search results, they get clicked on at a high rate.  This compounds the engagement metrics the engines are looking at to determine what is a good experience for their searchers.

While these sites may get lambasted by more “esteemed” media, at the end of the day they are creating content people are interested in and executing on several channels.  They are taking the fight to the more antiquated publishers.  Action always beats reaction.

Wolf Of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio raising glass.

Congratulations to these sites and the teams behind them.  Now excuse me while I go start a few

 Data: SimilarWeb