Publishers Drive Sites With Social Tools

Where would we be without the Facebook Like button and the Twitter stream sidebar? Someplace almost unrecognizable, according to a recent study by Lijit Networks, Inc. The study found an 80% increase in social media widget adoption in 2010. With search engine optimization (SEO) becoming an increasingly difficult task, more and more website publishers are using social widgets to drive traffic and to promote viewer engagement.

Lijit, a provider of search, content delivery, and analytics tools for online publishers and networks, released the revealing research based on data it gathered from its network of more than 15,000 sites, extending its reach to more than 735,000 different sites via blogrolls and backlinks. The company tracked widgets and tools these sites used and came out with an updated Lijit Top 50 list of the most popular widgets and tools that were employed.

Todd Vernon, Lijit founder and CEO, says the report is simply a byproduct of the services Lijit provides to more than 17,000 sites. The company collects data about page views and reader engagement and then offers that data to publishers and marketers in an effort to optimize site monetization. "We gather all this information every day for publishers, and we play it back to them so they understand their audience. But when you look at it in aggregate, it's actually sort of interesting," he says.

Founded in 2006, Lijit started compiling reports on tools and widgets as soon as they had a large enough footprint to analyze. Lijit looked at the data it collected throughout 2010 and posted its 2010 Publisher Tools Analysis on the company blog. In the study, Lijit defined a widget as "any regularly-occurring functionality on a website powered by an external service, voluntarily installed by the site owner, and powered by Flash or Javascript." Of the 735,834 sites it searched, 84.8% used tools or widgets.

That means you're hard-pressed to find a website that doesn't feature any outside sources of content. Walter Knapp, COO of Lijit, points out that "people don't just write a website. They also have a Twitter stream, and they also have a Facebook page, and they might also have some sort of video; they might use YouTube or something like that." For the most part, Knapp says, publishers adopt these tools for one of three reasons: "to either make their sites better, or to give them more understanding about the readers that visit their site, or to make money."

Content and engagement tools, such as Twitter Image, LinkWithin, Wibiya, and Tynt, appear in the top 50 for the first time, and Lijit reports that 3.68% of the sites it surveyed are using content tools to keep audiences on-site longer. The most telling results of the study show that the adoption of social media widgets grew 80% from 2009 to 2010-which means that 80% more websites were using widgets and tools such as Twitter streams, Share This buttons, or Like buttons. The report defines social media widgets as "tools used for social networking, micro-blogging, bookmarking, and photo sharing."

When Lijit started compiling its aggregate data in 2007 from a footprint of less than 30,000 sites, integrated Twitter widgets were barely a blip on the radar, and Facebook widgets didn't even appear as a Top 50 tool until 2008. But for 2010, Facebook and Twitter widgets appear among the Top 10 widgets, with Twitter the most-used social media widget. Twitter widgets fall behind only Google (search tools), Google Ads (monetization tools), and Quantcast (analytics tools) in popularity.

Using a social media widget to refer traffic to a site is as easy as clicking the Facebook Like button, which Facebook users do about 100 million times every day. StumbleUpon also let users discover sites and recommend them to others at the click of a button. The Lijit report shows Facebook and StumbleUpon dominating social media referral traffic, followed by Digg, Twitter, and Reddit. Traffic is measured by the sheer number of visits enabled by a widget, so though Twitter widgets appear on more sites, Facebook and StumbleUpon are responsible for more page views.

The popularity of social widget use differs between generations, according to a report Forrester Research published earlier this year. The study, "How Consumers Find Websites In 2010: Trends to Consider for Your 2011 Strategy," was headed by Shar VanBoskirk, Forrester vice president and principal analyst. After surveying more than 4,000 people, researchers found that younger generations were more likely to embrace social media as their top referral tool. The report revealed that "[s]ocial media has nearly overtaken search results as the highest driver of web traffic from consumers between the ages of 12 and 30," ranking higher than email referrals and recommendations from friends and family.

Lijit analyzed the way sites were accessed, either directly by typing in a URL or by referral from another site. The majority of site referrals came from search engine results and links from other websites, with about one-fifth of referred visitors coming through social networks. Social network referral is "a growing piece" of publishers' traffic, says Knapp. Forrester's "How Consumers Find Websites" report specifies that "Gen Y consumers are about twice as likely to be driven to a site through blog posts and Twitter as the average adult."

With social networks growing in referral and widget popularity, publishers should start thinking about optimizing their sites for social media integration. Search engines, while still the highest referrers of traffic, are growing less effective. "Because the queries are getting more and more specific, it's getting harder and harder to optimize your site for SEO," says Knapp. "So, what good online publishers are doing is making all appropriate use of every other tool they can."

Since search engine traffic still promotes the most referrals, publishers should think about mining on-site data and social content to aid with SEO, according to another Forrester report headed by VanBoskirk, produced in late 2010. "Social conversations are a useful way to understand what your clients are talking about and how they talk about your products and services," suggests the report, titled "How to Integrate Search With Social Media." That content helps publishers target keywords to optimize search engine results. While widgets can be employed to enrich sites and promote traffic, they also provide useful information. Knapp says, "Forward-thinking publishers are making extensive use of more social tools as tools."

Social media widgets give a site personality, promoting community and conversation, but they are perceived differently depending on the site. While mid-tail and long tail sites, such as those in Lijit's network, "tend to be very socially driven," Vernon says social tools have not been as essential in mainstream, high-traffic sites. "While it might have various Twitter accounts associated with it, you don't believe CNN is a person," Vernon says. But on mid-size sites, "the content is very centric to the publisher, and the publisher is a person, and the person is why the site is important ... that's why social media works really well with these sites." But Vernon only sees the social media trend expanding in the future. "I think it's going to continue to ripple through more mainstream sites," he says. We'll just have to wait and see what 2011 holds.