Limited use of sharing buttons shows people’s desire to share links privately

Despite the social sharing buttons ubiquitous on news stories and other Web pages, the dominant method of sharing is still the old-fashioned copy-and-paste of a page URL.

AddThis, which provides sharing tools embedded on 10 million websites, says between 70 and 95 percent of all link-sharing occurs by copying and pasting a URL, not by clicking a button on the page.

In some cases this has the same effect, if someone copies and pastes a URL into Twitter instead of clicking the embedded tweet button. But the data also show the hidden but popular practice of sharing links privately with specific people over email or IM, said Greg Cypes, director of product for AddThis parent company Clearspring Technologies.

“The desire for people to share one-to-one or one-to-few … is much much greater than we originally expected it to be,” Cypes said.

Not everyone wants to broadcast every link to their entire network via a Facebook wall post or a tweet. Instead someone might think, “My brother would like to read this,” and IM it to him. Or a person might email a link to a specific set of co-workers.

Such pasted sharing accounts for the great majority of traffic driven back to sites, Cypes said. Each pasted link in September received an average of 200 clickthroughs, while links shared via a social network button averaged only a few clicks.

That sounds like a surprisingly high amount of clickthroughs, but keep in mind that these acts of private sharing command much more attention. If a Facebook friend posts a link on his wall, I may not happen to see it in my news feed or may not decide it’s worth clicking on. Twitter messages stream by too rapidly to see them all. But if a friend emails me a link directly, I’m almost certain to see it and more likely to click on it. is one of the many sites using AddThis to track address-bar sharing. The red rectangles highlight the modified page URL, and the social sharing buttons.

The data comes from an AddThis service called “address bar sharing analytics.” Here’s how it works: When a user visits a page, the site appends a hashtag of random letters and numbers to the end of the URL (something like this: The person copies the hashtag along with the rest of the URL and send it to others however they like. If others click on that link, AddThis recognizes the unique hashtag from the first user’s visit and counts that as a referral.

A Web analytics service might count many such visits as “direct traffic” because it doesn’t know any better. The AddThis tool can show a site owner how much of that direct traffic is spurred by links shared by previous visitors -- no matter how the link was shared.

This doesn’t mean you should ditch the social sharing buttons on your site. They’re still useful, even if they’re not the main way people share content online. The visual cue to tweet or “Like” the page may encourage impulsive sharing. And each button’s tally of the number of Likes and tweets gives a reader a hint that the story may be worth reading or sharing.

Facebook or Twitter are not less meaningful than we thought. They still drive a lot of discovery, engagement and referral traffic. But this research does suggest that the open Web of HTML pages, hyperlinks and email is not dying at the hands of walled gardens like Facebook. It’s just less easily measured.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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