A new research from Indiana University showed that 54% of URL requests had no referrals. That means that most of the time, people do not click on links. They merely pick a site in their favorites or type in an URL in the address bar. A mere 5% of URL requests came from search engines.
The figures can hardly be doubted. The study monitored 100,000 users over 9 months – the largest yet. What is more, the number of URL requests without referrals actually increased over the course of the study.
Users seem less Google-prone than what is often claimed. They spend little time surfing and prefer to go directly to destinations they know.
The share of users that asked Google for “bbc.co.uk” actually rose over the years, meaning that web-literacy did not increase. Some users still do not understand the difference between the address bar and a search engine. As internet penetration continues to grow, late-adopters are forced to go online. Their behavior is far from the gorgeous image constantly pictured by geeky web consultants.
Should we jump to conclusions and withdraw all the theories on network building and SEO? Rich Gordon, from the Readership Institute, argues for instance that the answer for news outlets lies in building destinations, not bridges nesting deeper into the user’s head so as to see her come back more regularly.
Even though the figure of 54% of URL requests without referrals is impressive (and growing), it does not imply that web users are stuck in some 1995-like behavior. Asked by e-mail about the discrepancy between what some webmasters report, with Google traffic being the main concern, and his research, Mark Meiss offers several answers.
Quite surprised himself, he admits first that his experimental design considered requests from AJAX pages or RSS readers as having no referral. He also stressed the difference between some heavily visited websites, such as Facebook, and those on the news market. Users looking for news can be dwarfed by the new usages that emerged recently and that focus on a few websites (read: social networking). The full interview can be read here.
Although users do not adopt the newest surfing technologies as fast as the geek elite would like them to, the strategic visions centered on the power of the link should not be dismissed. AOL locked-in system failed years ago, and so will Facebook’s.
Journalists should not consider this research as a confirmation that they the ultimate destination for news, as some of them would like to think. Success lies in information flow, not in puddles of still articles.