Reflections on the new social culture
A year ago, the main sources of referral traffic to our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com, lined up in this order:
- Typed/Bookmarked (readers who type our url into their browsers or follow their pre-set bookmark);
- Links from aggregators and other content sites;
- Search engines;
- Social media (a roll-up of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn)
Then something interesting happened. The social line began rising, first passing Search and then flying by Other Sites and finally, in late 2011, moving beyond Typed/Bookmarked. Now, TheAtlantic.com receives more than one-third of its referrals from social media, topping all other sources.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Not long ago, optimizing your site for search, and for the algorithms that determine which stories get featured on Google News, was thought to be the key to generating audience. As a result, Web editors were learning to parse metadata and resigning themselves to writing headlines for machines. Companies like Demand Media were on top of the digital world, suggesting a future in which search requests would replace journalists as arbiters of what stories to publish.