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h1Content is more viral if it helps people fully express their personality disorders.

Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed founder

It seems we can't go a week without reading a story about how social networks are driving more and more traffic to online publishers. Part of this is due to pure volume: Pew Research Center published new research this week that found that regular use of social networks by adults (not just kids) has more than doubled in the past three years. 65% of online adults are now networking socially, and the only two more popular online activities are email (still the killer app) and, of course, searching.

The Pew research is just the latest headline from the front lines of the war between Google and Facebook. As they battle for attention, time spent, advertising dollars and even engineering talent, we're focused on why online media is seeing such a huge shift in where traffic comes from, and what it means for publishers in the long run.

In short, it's all about positive feedback loops. In systems, a "positive feedback loop" isn't about a positive outcome, it's about a change in a system causing a reaction that eventually produces even more change, in the same direction. It's when A produces more of B, which in turn produces more of A.

It's not just that Facebook and Twitter are popular. And it's not just because there are lots of little Like and Tweet buttons spread around the Web. It's the interplay between publishers and social networks that are creating a positive feedback loop where more and more traffic and attention are shifting to the real-time flow of social traffic ... and away from search.

Think about it, if you're working on a publication day in and day out, would you rather write for an anonymous search bot ... or a real-time living, breathing network of people, complete with user pics? If you're an editor, you're optimizing for social every day because ...

  • It's more fun. Who wouldn't rather tease likes, tweets and reblogs out of an inspired headline or a creatively photoshopped image than stuff copy with keywords and phrases that people are searching for?

  • It's measurable. While the impact of search traffic is measurable in the long run, it's hard to compete with like counts, fan counts, follower counts, reblog counts and other simple measures of social success.
  • It's real time. With social media you know pretty much immediately if what you're doing is having an impact. (And there are tools to turn that into an addiction.) With search, it can take days, weeks or months to have a real impact ... and much of that is out of your control based on your site's existing PageRank.

The social networks themselves are playing to these strengths by giving publications tools that addict them to the flow ...

  • Easy sharing tools. There's a reason the bottom of articles are looking like a NASCAR stock car; every social network has their own 25 pixel high button that makes it easy to share. Publishers adopt these on the promise of capturing that incremental traffic ... but probably aren't thinking about the data the networks are capturing on their traffic.

  • Deeper analytics. Facebook's Insights tool helps site owners understand how Facebook members are interacting with their content - both on Facebook and on the site itself. And there are persistent rumors about an analytics product from Twitter.
  • Easily understood impact. Press releases about user or activity growth are one thing. But Twitter plugged a major hole in their PR campaign with publishers in August when they changed how links are shared through their network, routing every click through their t.co domain. It means that publishers can finally see exactly how much traffic is coming from Twitter, regardless if it's from twitter.com, a mobile client or a third party application.

We're also seeing impact from social sites beyond the twin engines of Facebook and Twitter. StumbleUpon is a major driver of traffic to our properties, but with a different pattern of behavior than your typical Facebook visitor - the Stumble toolbar means that if you're not engaging them on first click, they're stumbling on faster than you can say "bounce rate." But a recent story on xoJane.com that went viral on StumbleUpon drove three days of sustained traffic. And Pinterest, the "virtual pinboard" where users share beautiful things they've found on the Web, is a strong source of traffic for Remodelista.com.

More content optimized for social distribution leads to more (and better) tools from the networks for distributing that content. Which leads to more content optimized for social distribution. Layer on the larger trend (that social network adoption is only trending up) and we've got a sea change.

By Michael Sippey, VP Site Product Management at SAY Media