Jonah Peretti is out to prove he understands viral content better than anyone else. The CEO and founder of the leading “viral mill,” Buzzfeed.com, first tasted the thrill of mass sharing back in 2001, when he was a grad student at MIT who preferred to prank the web than study for exams.
While many still assert that virality can’t be engineered, Buzzfeed’s numbers suggest that it can. The company has over $46 million in venture capital investments, promotional deals with over half of the world’s top 100 brands and is expected to bring in $140 million in 2014 revenues alone. They’re even profitable – no small feat in today’s infotainment startup economy.
A shared media powerhouse
The site is enormously popular. SimilarWeb list Buzzfeed as the current reigning king of unpaid search referral traffic for US audiences in the ‘Magazines and E-Zines’ category, and it’s the only “viral mill” site to rank that highly.
Buzzfeed is so huge that it even ranks among the top US websites across all categories.
Buzzfeed’s business model is based on “native advertising,” with brands paying to have sponsored content items promoted on the site. They’re a content and media company, but their real asset is the data. Buzzfeed.com collects boatloads of information about its visitors and their clicking patterns, and this data informs both future content generation emphases and each user’s subsequent experience on the site. And Buzzfeed’s advertisers allow Peretti’s team to track traffic patterns on their sites too, further feeding the great experiment that is “The Buzzfeed Network.”
Returns without depending on Google
The business of churning out content made for sharing on social media is a lesson in double-dipping, but its sustainability is suspect. Buzzfeed earns from brands, who are attracted by the site’s huge traffic stats, which come from referrals when people like you and me repost its content on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, etc.
Take this business model to its logical end, and you get a digital media economy that is, for the first time, fuelled by channels other than search. No wonder Buzzfeed has the internet marketing community up in arms over its repeated claims that the entire Buzzfeed Network sees far more referrals from Facebook than it sees from Google.
When we look at Buzzfeed’s leader-board of the site’s top content, we see lots of page titles that look better suited to audience push (in this case, appearance in users’ Facebook feeds) than pull (in the form of Google searches).
The crawlers that inform SimilarWeb’s tools certainly support this idea. Our data on the flagship Buzzfeed site’s US traffic from the past year shows a whopping 52% coming from social and a paltry 7% from search.
Bringing search into the mix
While some have jumped on the Buzzwagon, heralding a post-SEO age with great glee, others have questioned the validity of the data, aiming to prove that it’s bunk and that we’d all be wise to keep calm and Googling on. If we caught him at the right moment, I’m sure even Peretti would admit that it just doesn’t make good business sense to be so dependent on one method of acquiring pageviews.
Facebook, of course, is fueling the debate, encouraging media sites to post, share and promote on their platform, claiming this past fall that thanks to some media-friendly algorithm adjustments, clickthroughs from its pages to media content had spiked by 170% over the preceding 12 months.
But SimilarWeb’s data reveals that Buzzfeed gets a lot more organic search referrals than they claim. We’re currently listing them in the number three slot among the top organic search destinations in the Magazines and E-Zines category.
Indeed, over time, Buzzfeed’s search traffic seems to be steadily rising. Compared to a more “traditional” news site like the New York Times, Buzzfeed’s search-fed usership is small, but over the past three months, it’s started catching up.
Half of their top 10 organic keywords involve their brand name in some way, a testament not only to the power of Buzzfeed in the marketplace but also to the inescapability of people using search to browse.
Peretti and his viral army may be great at getting marketers and other web professionals riled up over the prospect of a future where we don’t need to be as dependent on Google, but that’s clearly only part of the story. The most sustainable content sites will still strive for a balanced approach. And regardless, Google is designed to reward the sites that are most worthy of sharing, so going mainstream might mean that the search giant will send audience members your way, whether you optimized for it or not.