People often ask us about the impact of search and social media traffic for piracy.
Search and social media are every web publisher’s most powerful tools for driving traffic. The same is true with search and social media traffic for piracy. If search and social media were not such great marketing tools, bad actors in the piracy world wouldn’t use them.
The Biggest Source of Traffic for all Web Publishers
Overall, search engines drive just over half of traffic for websites. This is even more true for media and entertainment companies.
“Search is the single largest traffic source for every niche, and in most industries it drives the majority of the web traffic.”Kyle Byers | GrowthBadger
Social media plays a big role in driving organic traffic as well. With over 3 billion social media users across the world — and 90 percent of users accessing social media from a mobile device — social media is a critical driver of traffic. The two channels — search and social — account for nearly 60 percent of traffic for media companies and publishers.
So what does all this mean for pirates marketing their website?
Media publishers rely on both search and social media to drive their audience to their content. It’s integral, and it’s not going anywhere. Infringing websites also primarily rely on these two channels as their primary drivers of traffic and growth.
Digital marketing channels are the best levers to impact revenue for both pirate sites and their legal competitors.
So what can media companies and publishers do about it?
Search and Social Work Both Ways
Search Engines and Social Media are marketing tools for media companies and all web publishers, both good and bad.
Since Google started indexing and Facebook launched, search and social media have always been every web publisher’s most powerful tools for driving traffic. The same is true for the highly competitive piracy industry, where content is free and profits are all about positioning your website to get the most traffic.
Search Engines and Social Media Traffic for Piracy is the Majority of All Traffic
This is true for most web publishers, but even more true for piracy. Since piracy sites can rarely advertise in the traditional sense, they rely on search engine optimization and shadowy social media exchanges to make their mark.
This is the crux of the double-edged sword: if these platforms were not such great marketing tools, infringing sites would not weaponize and abuse them for copyright infringement, fake news, malware distribution, and more.
Thankfully, there is a whole industry around copyright enforcement and consumer trust and safety to keep these platforms safe for users. Marketly, for example, enforces on up to 15,000 unique domains each month. It is not without reason that Google has removed listings from over 1 Million Domains for copyright infringement.
Web Analytics Under Report Search and Social Media Traffic for Piracy
Another factor is the wild card in web analytics tools:
Most web analytics tools report dark traffic as direct traffic for a wide variety of technical reasons that are especially true for copyright infringers
Because of this, many people underestimate the role of search and social traffic for piracy. More often than not, the number associated with ‘direct’ traffic is wildly inaccurate.
For example: when Google first started delisting copyright infringement, The Pirate Bay famously said that they received most of their traffic directly and would just get more if Google removed their links:
“Google is putting our links lower is in a way a good thing for us. We’ll get more direct traffic when people don’t get the expected search result when using Google, since they will go directly to TPB.”
The Pirate Bay’s swagger didn’t last all that long. Two years later, TorrentFreak reported that search delisting was hitting torrent sites hard. “The traffic data and search comparisons clearly show that Google’s latest downranking changes can have a severe impact on popular pirate sites,” the site reported.
Still, many web measurement tools report that a lot of traffic for pirate sites is direct. This is true for Google Analytics, Alexa, and SimilarWeb
So why the discrepancy?
Why Search and Social Media Traffic for Piracy goes Under Reported
Most marketing experts know that ‘direct’ traffic is actually ‘untracked’ traffic from unknown sources. These untracked traffic sources can arise from a number of ways people browse the web and find infringing links, including:
- Browsing in Incognito Mode. Users browsing in incognito mode do not pass referral data to Google and 3rd party reporting platforms. As we all know, users favor browsing incognito when they go to sketchy sites, especially on a work, school, or parent’s computer.
- Dark social links from mobile apps and private groups. This is a big one for piracy. It includes private user groups and mobile apps that refer traffic outside the browser. Ever seen a private piracy group on Reddit or WhatsApp? These are also reported as direct traffic.
- Complex redirects and URL shorteners. Pirate sites are famous for search spam and bait-and-switch landing pages. These redirects end up being counted as internal referral traffic instead of search referrals.
- Redirects from HTTP to HTTPs links. Pirate sites are not all that into encrypted traffic. Many of their links are HTTP and redirect to HTTPs. This causes Google and third party reporting tools to report traffic as direct.
- Non-web sources. How many pirate searches return a list of Google Doc links, slideshares, and PDFs? These referrals also end up being counted as ‘direct’.
- Manual type-ins instead of clicks. Users see the site initially on social or search, but open an incognito browser to navigate to the site (again, we all know how users prefer to go incognito when browsing a sketchy site).
As you can imagine, these situations actually apply more to pirate sites than their legal counterparts.
So How Much Traffic Really Comes from Search and Social Media?
There is not a lot of exact data on how much these factors impact reporting. But there is a telling case study. Groupon famously de-indexed its entire site for a day as an experiment. The goal was to identify which traffic was organic search and which was truly direct.
Groupon lost 60% of traffic on the single day they de-indexed themselves from Google.
The moral of the story? Search and social play traffic for piracy plays a much greater role than most web analytics tools report.
Moving Forward: Search and Social Media Continue to Evolve
It’s no great secret that algorithms for search and social change on a regular basis. So what’s next for these channels?
- Watch carefully. Content analytics firm Parse.ly advises its customers to watch referral trends closely as search and social media duke it out for the role of top sources for web traffic.
- Don’t discount social. Social media may not make up as much traffic as search, but it is certainly becoming more important for both publishers and piracy sites. Social media penetration worldwide is at 45 percent, and organic social traffic has been on the rise again since 2017.
- Focus on the big guys. Facebook and Google drive the largest percentage of organic social and search traffic for websites, respectively. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. It makes sense, then, to focus your anti-piracy efforts on those platforms.
Look at Search and Social to Maximize Business Impact
Search and social media traffic for piracy offers you one of the biggest levers to impact a threat actor’s business.
Take a data-driven approach to enforcement by thinking of enforcement in marketing results. By decreasing the visibility of pirated results and social media links, you increase the visibility of your own content and add value to your brand.