2013: the year that social eclipsed Google?

This astounding chart, via Peter Kafka at Recode, shows what happened to referral traffic to the Buzzfeed network in the last two years. While it's true that Buzzfeed's content is quite literally designed for social propagation, it is still astounding to see Facebook referral traffic take off like that, while Google referrals remain essentially flat. Even if this spike was engineered by Facebook and Buzzfeed in order to make a point, I'd say that they are doing a better than average job of making it. 

Intuitively, this trend makes sense to me. We've known for a long time that people trust their friends more than they do institutions, so it's hardly surprising that social is rapidly becoming our primary source of content discovery on the web. Overwhelmed with choices, we are increasingly defaulting to the habits that defined humanity throughout most of our evolutionary history. Namely, a reliance on the group or tribe as a source of advice, stories and support. Historically, it has been the people we know personally in whom we choose to place our greatest trust, not anonymous institutions run by strangers. 

So why is this happening now? 

For the past few years our entire society has been busy "on-boarding" people into social media. Like architects designing a city, we have been putting in the plumbing and building the roads that connect people to each other. In late 2013, that project has started to reach its saturation point. As of September 2013, when the above chart really started to take off, 73% of all US adults were using social networking sites. 73%! That's an astounding number. If we look at the 18-29 age group then that number goes even higher, to 90%. 

As Clay Shirky has pointed in his book "Here Comes Everybody": 

Revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.

I think this is what we are witnessing in the chart above. We are witnessing a new set of behaviors online (based on a very old set of behaviors offline). We had to build the infrastructure first, before these behaviors could really emerge, but now that the infrastructure is built, we are witnessing a radical shift in content discovery behaviors, and, sitting here in February of 2014, we are only at the start. 

Of course, it remains to be seen if this phenomenon is limited to Buzzfeed partner sites. However, the fact that there are 200 sites in that particular network makes me think that this is not an isolated incident, but the shape of things to come. While the reports of the death of SEO may have been exaggerated, this should give brand managers and digital marketers pause for thought. 

Finally, in speaking of social search, thanks to MIke Hudack (@mhudack) from the Facebook team for sharing this with me yesterday. Like.