Social media’s impact on website traffic

At the start of this year, I spent some time looking at the Google Analytics information for our website. After reading an interesting post by Ann M. White about social media’s impact on traffic to her institution’s website, I decided to look into that for our site as well.

The analytics from our university website more or less mimic what Ann found at her campus, Oklahoma Christian University. That is, social media as a driver of traffic to a university website composes a very tiny sliver of the pie. So tiny, in fact, that I can’t even illustrate it with a pie chart.

Here’s how it shakes out for our campus:

  • The Missouri S&T website had 7,855,680 visits in 2009
  • 24,685 (0.3 percent) came from Facebook
  • 2,634 (0.03 percent) came from Twitter
  • Facebook ranks as the 11th highest referral source, but far behind the usual suspects (direct, Google, Blackboard, Yahoo, Bing)
  • Twitter ranks 40th in terms of referrals to the main website, a few notches below StumbleUpon and tied with the University of Texas

The relatively low numbers don’t mean social media is insignificant to your online presence, however. It could be that those visits to your website might not have happened without social media. As Ann says in her post, “I choose to think of it as ‘wow, those are all deliberate hits that we wouldn’t get without social media.’ Hooray!”

I’d be interested in hearing how these averages compare with other campuses. Does anyone else (besides Ann and me) look at this kind of information? If so, please share.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

14 thoughts on “Social media’s impact on website traffic”

  1. I like the way Ann looks at it :-)

    I’d be curious to see the split between the main .edu and any news/blog content. Sure, social media traffic to the main .edu pages might be low, but — and this is just speculation — I don’t think people are generally posting on FB or Twitter, “Hey, check out the About page for Missouri S&T!” Our Get to Know Tufts about Undergraduate Academics pages are among our most highly visited, but I would suspect that the pages that get the most social media traffic are from our blogs or news sources. (I’ll have to do some poking around to know for sure…)

    Brings up an interesting question, though. How many schools, I wonder, put ShareThis-type functionality on their upper level, non-news/blog pages? If we invited people to share, would they?

  2. Very similar stats here for 2009:
    5,621,087 visits to newpaltz.edu
    39,034 from Facebook (.69%) (#11 source)
    2,894 from Twitter (.05%, #35 source)

    I’m with Ann — every referral counts in some way. Those are over 40,000 extra visits we may not have had otherwise… who knows.

  3. Following up with my own point, I just compared www stats to our news front door and two online news channels (long story) for the period Sept. 1-Dec. 31, 2009.

    Understandably, significantly more traffic comes to our news properties via referring sites than to our main www property, and that includes Twitter and FB. On average, about ten times more traffic from Twitter than Facebook (which seems to loosely jibe with both yours and Rachel’s stats) for both news and www properties. I could share the specific stats, but since they are sort of a digression, I’ll hold off. :-)

  4. Did anybody examine internal traffic coming to the site vs. external traffic? That is, how often was facebook driving someone from a non-university IP address to your Web site? Obviously this wouldn’t be an exact science, but it is interesting.

    We only started our institutional page in June of ’09, so we really only have about 6 months of stats (and the analytics do show a jump after the page was launched).

    At UC Riverside:
    1/5/09 – 1/5/10
    Total visitors to UCR.edu – 9,165,402
    Total external visitors to UCR.edu – 5,102,459
    Total visitors from FB – 15,317 (26th overall)
    External visitors from FB – 11,899 (20th overall)

  5. I’m not sure these are relevant measurements unless the explicit goal of your social media plan is to drive traffic to your main website. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t you be better off devoting your time, energy and resources to SEO and other website enhancements anyway? That would likely generate many, many more visits.

    Personally, I think the goal of social media is to engage and inform current and future students/staff/alumni/donors. Yes, your Facebook page might drive some direct traffic to your institutional website, but it’s a poor measurement of success of either tool.

  6. I just commented on Ann’s original post–I’ll put the same info here for those who may not follow that link–

    I track clickthroughs by looking at bit.ly to see who clicks through instead of looking at Google Analytics on the site side to see where people come from.

    I need to do this because sometimes I’m linking to a page on our site, sometimes I’m linking to a news story that features our faculty or programs, sometimes I’m linking to a page on the central news archives at the main campus. One way or another, it’s all content about us and I track it all.

    I’ve been measuring pretty obsessively for over a year and comparing social media to other spots where we plant links (like in a news release to route someone back to a Web page).

    For us, with a highly targeted effort to build an identity on Twitter as a campus focused on health sciences/health care research and education, with graduate design studies and some other smaller programs, I’d say it’s been effective in drawing–as Ann says–DELIBERATE visits by people who know where they’re going.

    I’m on Twitter in part because it’s a chance to connect with journalists, bloggers and other thought leaders I’d like to make aware of our research, which I can do more directly than by optimizing our site and hoping they’ll put in the right search term (although we also work on that).

    We’ve had over 12,000 click-throughs to date and the most popular items are all exactly what I’d want them to be, as far as ones that are our strongest programs for which we want to be known. Yes, this is a tiny piece of the pie (I didn’t go pull all our analytics to cite total traffic here) but it’s got a different flavor :D.

    Case study on SNCR site (link is to PDF of all winning entries in the microblogging category–we won an Award of Excellence in the Academic division): http://bit.ly/4wPxxF

    Tweets also live on, in the form of archived feeds on web pages all over the place, so those clicks keep coming long after the original tweet.

    Now that tweets and unprotected Facebook updates will show up in Google results, they have even more value in driving traffic.

    I haven’t yet put the same energy into Facebook. That along with more work on our YouTube channel and a new blog are on the list for 2010. The way I look at it, we can’t NOT be there.

    @BarbChamberlain
    Director of Communications and Public Affairs
    Washington State University Spokane
    @WSUSpokane
    http://www.spokane.wsu.edu
    http://www.facebook.com/WSUSpokane

  7. I tend to lean toward Colin’s view among those expressed so far (and no we have not yet looked at SM sources for web visits yet). On some basic level, for the individual user, FB and Twitter are still very much about relationship maintenance/enhancement, not about info sharing and web traffic.

    Web traffic is great, and we love it when people click through to a news story, etc. But it may be less important whether these services drive web visits than whether they have a different purpose – what Colin said: “to engage and inform current and future students/staff/alumni/donors.”

  8. As a related (I hope!) follow up, here is an article on user motivation on social sites. No details on methodology though:

    http://is.gd/5Pqwb

    From the article: “Miller found four key motivating factors influencing users. These were curiosity about the lives of others, social engagement, a desire to increase social capital and status, and self-expression.”

  9. Lots of terrific commentary here. Thanks! I should add that I didn’t mean to imply that garnering social media traffic to our website was an explicit goal of our social media efforts at Missouri S&T. Rather, I found the idea of looking at the data intriguing and now that we finally have a year’s worth of data from official sites on both the Twitter and Facebook platforms, I finally have something to compare on an annual basis.

    What Colin, Barb and Andy say is valid: if it’s traffic we’re after, then SEO is the better approach. If it’s engagement of constituents, then that’s where social media should shine.

    To Georgy’s point about traffic to college/university news sites , I looked at that also and found 10 times the relative proportion of traffic from Facebook and Twitter for our news site (news.mst.edu). To wit:

    * 145,587 unique visits to the S&T news site in ’09
    * 2,076 (1.43%) from Facebook (vs. 0.3% overall)
    * 527 (0.36%) from Twitter (vs. 0.03% overall)

    Barb – I haven’t delved too obsessively into tracking and analyzing all our social media data, but I also measure data from tweets posted via HootSuite, a tool similar to bit.ly. I’m sifting through much of that right now for my upcoming presentation at the CASE District VI conference next week.

    Ross – I haven’t segmented the off-campus vs. overall but thought I would, since most (but not all) of our FB and Twitter efforts are toward off-campus constituents. It would be interesting to gauge the effectiveness of a social media campaign to internal audiences (especially current students) vs. traditional email or other efforts to communicate with those groups.

    P.S. – Barb, nice work on the microblogging effort, and congrats on the award!

  10. At Marist College here are out numbers for 2009:

    12,194,819 total visitors
    151,592 from Facebook (number 7 source)
    22,699 from Twitter (number 17 source)

    Points made above are very valid. Our alumni board told our president they enjoy getting their Marist news from my updates on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (which is way down the list at number 76). While a small group, they obviously have an important role to play in the Marist and greater communities.

    We ran campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to our Web site for the announcement of a major gift last September and those two sites drove 11,000 visitors to the news site in one day, a very high number for Marist.

    I don’t believe any college or university relies so much on social media that interest in SEO has fallen by the wayside. After all, 4.5 million visitors came in from Google. However, Twitter and Facebook are creating buzz among important constituencies and are an important part of our communication mix.

    BTW, as Twitter grows in popularity, it will be interesting to see how its numbers at the end of 2010 compare to the end of 2009.

  11. Interesting conversation and not much to add, but one point. Like Ann noted in her post “hooray we are getting this traffic”! Yes every school mentioned here probably has a Facebook Fan Page and Twitter Profile that they synidcate news through RSS. The one thing that would be interesting is to see data from a school who is actively pushing a campaign through Facebook.

  12. Kind of taking a piece from everyone’s comments – while the numbers seen are good, it is all about the engagement and the goal of the respective social media platform.

    I am sure everyone knows this – If the goal is engagement, then the traffic numbers won’t mean that much. But if the goal is flow traffic to a specific site, then these numbers will mean a whole lot more.

    It may be good to switch up the location to which the link is going to. Many people mentioned that there news has seen an increase incoming traffic to news pages from social networks. If every link is pointed to your news site on a regular basis, then after a while, followers may bypass your social network and go straight to your news page (RSS or Google alert for example). Thus taking the social network out of the equation and creating a new “home page” of sorts deep with in your site and possibly becoming lost in flow of information on your website. I have done this for several news orgs that have Twitter accounts (bypassed and gone straight to the news section I like). Overall, this is not necessarily a bad thing to have happen.

    If you diversify the link location you can then measure a bit more deeply into not just the link, but infer the kind of topics and links that are useful to your network followers. Like sending followers to the university’s current research projects page on the research site or the football score on the athletic page or the speaker series page on the student services page. Very specific links with very specific topics could get much different results and show of more of your site than just the news page.

  13. I would agree with Colin and Andy to a certain extent but I would add that a different metric to consider would be the user achieving a successful result, regardless of the site. In other words if someone is looking for admissions information and gets it on my admissions facebook page and never needs to hit my .edu admissions site, that’s a success right?

    Its a hard thing to quantify but how about instead of measuring how much traffic comes from social media measure how much engagement happens ON social media, then look at social media as a percentage of the overall engagement of your audience online.

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