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Where’s all my Twitter traffic?

May 9, 2011

Interesting study out from Pew on referral traffic to news sites, and sure enough, Facebook comes up trumps in social media. Twitter iconMore interesting for me, though, is the traffic from Twitter – or the lack of it. For most sites in the Pew study, Twitter “barely registers as a traffic source”, says the AFP article in the link.

I love Twitter and think it’s a great source for the news. Day by day it’s encroaching on my other news-fetching habits, and I’m not alone. Hell, I found out about this study from Twitter (thanks @Lavrusik).

So where the murgatroid is the traffic? If Twitter has 200 million users generating 65 million tweets a day, why isn’t it rivalling traffic from Facebook’s 600 million active users?

It’s a dirty little secret many media companies have. Twitter, despite all its general wonderfulness at spreading the news, refers very little traffic to most news sites (only one in the Pew survey cracked 1%). Some niche news sites actually do a lot better out of Twitter, but these target digitally savvy people (eg online journalists).

For a mainstream news site, Facebook is a much bigger chunk of delicious traffic-berry pie.

Why? What’s going on?

For one, Facebook quotes active user numbers. Twitter doesn’t. Lots of accounts on Twitter are tweet bots (and not the good kind), a much higher proportion than Facebook, I’d wager. I don’t know how many of those 65 million daily tweets are spam, but if Twitter won’t say, I’d bet it’s too high for their comfort.

Some sneaky estimating puts the number of active tweeters at about 21 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but nowhere near Facebook. That means, though, that 9 in 10 Twitter accounts are inactive or spam bots.

But wait, there’s more. This report shows the makeup of a sample of tweets from 2009. Only about 4% are relating to the news, just less than spam. The biggest categories by far are “conversational” and “pointless babble”, which combined make up more than 75% of tweets.

Granted that was two years ago, but after the Mumbai attacks where Twitter played such an important role in breaking the news.

Now some quick maths: 65 million tweets * 4% news = 2.6 million tweets about the news. A lot of these will also be retweets that will appear a few times in people’s streams. And if most tweeters are like me, they use Twitter to hunt for interesting stories, ignoring most of the prey but feasting when they find a juicy morsel.

I don’t have any lovely numbers to prove it, but my hunch is that automated feeds from news sites are largely ignored. We mostly find out news on Twitter from other people instead – one account run by a member of the community is worth 100 automated feeds, because an endorsement from a person you know is the best reference a story can get. Most of the automated accounts are firing tweets unread into the ether.

Now the numbers are starting to make sense, and Twitter’s real role comes into focus – spreading news among the digital savvy. You have to be online a lot to get good payback out of Twitter, you have to want to be plugged into the worldwide info stream. For normal people, they just don’t see the point, and probably never will.

The lesson: Concentrate on humanising your Twitter profile, and using the service as an info source and community builder instead of a major referral source.

Smart traffic strategy is more than a numbers game.

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