nancy_drew_insideIn the last two years, traffic from social — and Facebook in particular — has become the real deal for publishers. According to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report, the number of content “shares” has increased by nine times over the last five years, and has nearly doubled this year alone.

For publishers like BuzzFeed, who grew traffic from 17 million unique visitors last April to 31 million unique visitors a year later, that boost is palpable. Simply stated, that sort of growth is not supposed to occur when you are already one of the largest websites on the planet.

PandoDaily has been tracking the success of another high-flying social winner — Upworthy — for a while now, and last week Hamish McKenzie wrote a great update on their traffic growth. Their massive surge in visitors has made them a Silicon Valley darling, and they are likely to announce a big new round of funding as a result.

But despite all the excitement around social traffic, it is important to realize that a visit from Search and a visit from Social are not of equal value.

For the last decade, great businesses have been built on top of Search traffic, and that is still the preferred path, if you actually want to make money. There are a few inter-related reasons for this.

The core explanation is rooted in the concentration of traffic to certain “hit” articles. As Hamish McKenzie noted, much of Upworthy’s traffic last month was to a single article about a young man who had recently died and left behind a “wondtacular” legacy.

So, what’s the big deal? A million visitors is a million visitors, right?

Not really.

With search traffic, it is unlikely that Google is going to give you a million visitors to a single article in a short period of time. Statistically speaking, even if a popular topic can garner a million searches in a day, that traffic is almost certainly to be spread across dozens of sites.

More typically, Google will provide you with a few hundred visits to a timely and relevant article. Some articles may only get a few dozen, while others may get a few thousand. But Google and Bing are unlikely to give you a huge “hit” article.

And in that consistency, a publishing company can find great value.

Predictability is the lifeblood of advertising-based businesses. Traffic that cannot be anticipated is traffic that cannot be monetized with brand advertising.

The typical big-ticket advertising deal is negotiated several months before it actually transpires. Often, an advertising agency will buy their Fall campaigns in the Spring, and for really large deals (“up fronts”) they can buy them even earlier than that.

And when an advertising agency writes you a $500,000 check for ads that are going to appear in six months, you better know for damn sure that the traffic will be there. Not only that, but the client does not want spikes and plateaus in their traffic. They want their brand messaging to appear at a consistent pace. For a big deal, that can mean 10 million page views per day, every day, for months.

For sites like Bleacher Report — whose clients want traffic focused upon specific sports that align with specific events — predictability requires intense precision.

Getting half the Internet to show up on your website without notice on some random Tuesday afternoon is not conducive to these selling patterns.

And while BuzzFeed creates enough content to smooth out some of these spikes, they are playing a very different game than HuffingtonPost, which has always been about Search.

Sites like Upworthy have a big challenge in front of them. It’s one thing to garner lots of traffic, but it’s quite another to turn it into money.

The operational side of advertising is one of the most under-appreciated sciences in publishing. For a lot of publishers, the Ops and Support teams are larger than the Sales teams themselves. They are responsible for ensuring that a campaign delivers in full, and the best way to ensure success is to forecast properly.

That is going to be very difficult to do in the “Social era.”

And it is going to create premium value for those publishers who can build direct audiences that avoid excessive hetereoscedasticity. And those who can nail Search will be similarly well positioned.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]