How Google helped Buzzfeed catch the social media bug

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

There’s a rather famous graph of Buzzfeed’s traffic kicking around. I’ve used it a bunch of times in lectures and training, and it looks like this:


There’s a crucial point where the Google referral traffic drops sharply for a while. Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed founder and CEO, has talked about what happened to Buzzfeed’s search traffic:

As it turned out, it was an error on Google’s end. It took Peretti about a month to track down the right people at Google (he name-checked Google’s head of search quality at the time, Matt Cutts). Google saw that BuzzFeed was embedding widgets from a related domain it owned, apparently for traffic management purposes. Google assumed it was malware being injected into BuzzFeed, Peretti said, and gave BuzzFeed a penalty.

Whoops. But while Buzzfeed was trying to sort it out, it also started focussing on social traffic:

By the time the error was resolved, BuzzFeed had shifted direction. Rather than try to balance content aimed to do well with both social and search, BuzzFeed was forced to focus entirely on social to get through the search slump — and it kept that focus going forward.

The whole story is at least somewhat indicative of the increasing split between content that works well for search – things that answer questions or inform – and those which perform well for social – stuff that’s amusing, or informatively entertaining. It’s hard to optimise for both these situations – so sometimes you’re forced into choosing.

Peretti also talks about some of these issues in a recent podcast:

BuzzfeedGooglesearchSEOsocial media optimisation

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.