Direct visitors to news web sites have a much higher value than visitors referred from social media such as Twitter, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

Direct visitors

Direct visitors are most engaged

Direct visitors to the news sites studied spend on average four minutes 36 seconds and read an average of 24.8 pages per month.  Visitors from social media such as Facebook only spent on average one minute 40 seconds and visited 4.2 pages per month.  Search engine traffic was only slightly better for news web sites, with visitors visiting 4.9 pages per month.

Study did not consider what matters most

While the study looked at the amount of time spent on a site, it did not calculate what really matters: who clicked on advertisers and provided a monetary value for the site.

The survey noted direct visitors represent nearly 20% of the total visitors to more than 50% of the web sites surveyed. Eleven of the sites surveyed had search engine referrals accounting for at least 20% of their traffic and Facebook traffic accounted for 20% or more to four sites.

The report specifically pointed at Buzzfeed and NPR.org and their proficiency at mining traffic from Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB).  Problem is, those Facebook visitors didn’t stick around long.  On Buzzfeed, for instance, Facebook visitors spent half as much time on the site as direct visitors.  The report also pointed to CBSnews.com, which has been proficient at generating search engine traffic.  Direct visitors, however, viewed 75% more pages than those generated from search engines.

Social media didn’t convert into long-term readers

The study noted that social media and search engines was not good at converting visitors into long-term readers.  Direct visitors who also came to the site via Facebook or search engines, for instance, ranged only from 0.9% to 4.1%. In regards to mobile, the recent Holy Grail of engagement, the study noted mobile readers prefer visiting news sites through the phone browser rather than an individual site’s apps, a trend noted in a previous Pew report. The report said 61% of mobile users view the web site “mostly” from the phone browser vs. 28% “mostly” using news apps.

“It’s important (for content providers) to understand the different parts of the digital realm in terms of how content and audiences function and how they interact with each other,” Amy Mitchell, Pew’s director of journalism research, was quoted as saying. “One digital strategy may not cut it.”

The study was conducted using three months of data from analytics firm Comscore where researchers analyzed 26 of the most popular news websites.  Researchers considered the three main sources of web traffic, social media referrals, search engine results and direct visits, to calculate the values.