by Mark Hayes
May 3, 2015

It seems to me that social share buttons are one of those features that seemed to appear everywhere overnight. People loved the idea of encouraging people to share their content on social media and when big names, like Mashable, feature their buttons prominently, who are we to say ‘no’?

The question that no one seems to be asking, however, is whether or not they actually work. Wouldn’t this be the first question you ask before adding a new feature? I thought so.

So that’s what we did.

The argument for social sharing buttons

If you want to exceed in the online world you need social shares– there is no way around it. Considering estimates that 72 percent of the population has at least one social media account, if your stuff is not attracting enough attention to warrant a social share, then you can rest assured that it is because no one is paying attention to anything you have to say.

Websites use these social share buttons to remind us to share. It is designed to be a little dangling reminder saying, “share me! share me!” Because, you know, if we do not see the buttons, we might forget that a sixth of the world’s population is currently on Facebook.

The buttons first really came about when web designers were beginning to work on promoting social sharing. They realized that when readers shared their articles with others, their traffic and brand reach grew tremendously. Since that time, the buttons have become a staple on nearly any website you visit today.

The philosophy behind the buttons still holds true to a degree today. People do use them. We have all visited Mashable’s site at some point and gave a nod of respect to their 1,000+ share and likes that are broadcast to us. These types of numbers bring up a second major argument in favor of the buttons: they offer credibility.

When we click on a page that boasts dozens of shares, our opinion of that page and its content is automatically raised. We figure that if so many other people appreciated the content and felt the need to share it, there must be something about the piece worth reading.

Martin Belam felt deeply that social share buttons were still relevant and that, like every other part of a website, simply need to be run through A/B tests. He found that the placement of the buttons tremendously impacted people’s likelihood of using them.

Other research has found that the use of the buttons is also heavily dependent upon two key factors:

  • the type of page visitor
  • the type of website

Apparently, the more technologically savvy you are, the less likely you are to use the retweet buttons. Why this is so remains up for debate. Maybe you feel more comfortable around the copy/paste function. Maybe you know that tweets are your opportunity to broadcast your thoughts to the world and want to personalize the tweet.

Whatever the reason may be, if you are reading this blog you likely fall into the percentage of the population that is less likely to use the retweet button.

The type of site also impacts your likelihood of retweeting. If you run an activist political site, we are telling you right now– do not delete your social share buttons. Apparently the people who enjoy visiting these sites, on either end of the spectrum, are also significantly more likely to use the social share buttons.

Of course, people who know a bit about SEO have also likely heard that Google+ has been rumored to have the power to impact search ranking. For those who want to take advantage of this as much as possible, the thought of taking away the Google+ button sounds about the equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.

The argument against social sharing buttons

An increasing number of businesses have decided to completely bulk current web design wisdom and– gasp!– delete their social share buttons. “But if people still use them, why would we do this?” you might ask.

Few people actually use them

People use the social share buttons, we are not going to deny that. What you can argue, however, is that such an insignificant number of people actually click them that this percentage of the traffic is easily overcome by the drawbacks of the buttons. We found in our own testing that only about 1 percent of people actually used the buttons to share content.

Other researchers have found similar results. The Inside Gov.UK website implemented social sharing buttons in a test and found that most types of content and devices saw less than a 1 percent share rate.

Are the buttons used? Sure! But they are used so minimally in the grand scheme of driving traffic that their impact is minimal. It is certainly not high enough to justify keeping the buttons on most websites in light of the other problems listed below- at least not in our minds.

User experience

When it comes to creating an optimal user experience, we find that generally less is more. Adding too many buttons and opportunities to ‘click here’ and ‘click there’ will only distract users from the content that they came to read.

The social media pop-ups that appear on the website also do just not contribute much to the user experience. They produce windows that often include text and messages that people do not want to send out in addition to the link. This can lead to frustration and people not sharing the page at all in the end.

There have also been many complaints about social sharing buttons also result in slower load times. A 1 second delay in page response has been found to cause as much as a 7 percent reduction in conversions, yet forcing the website to load social share buttons can cause precisely that delay.

This will be causing more people to click off and can be impacting the bottom line. Your page visitors do not like to wait, so if you want to be a good website host, do not make them.

And have you heard about the issues related to spying? Apparently not only do these buttons serve as free advertising for the popular social media platforms, but they are also quite convenient little spying mechanisms for the massive amounts of data being gathered by these social media giants.

When users click the buttons, they implant cookies into the user’s computer to track the types of content they like and share. Unless the user completely logs out of their social media accounts– which face it, when was the last time you clicked the ‘log-out’ button?– the cookie keeps tracking the  user.

We all know how much people freak out at the thought of big government or big companies tracking their every move– so tell your customers that you are removing the buttons in your personal mission to protect their privacy. Chances are they will love you for it. You will be able to fight for freedom without having to move to Russia. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Mobile

Mobile has come to dominate an increasing percentage of web traffic. An estimated 60 percent of online traffic now arrives from online devices. That means the number of customers viewing the content on mobile devices will likely be outnumbering the number of customers arriving on desktops.

Mobile customers, however, have even less of a need for social share buttons. Phones and tablets already have built-in sharing options which make it easy for people to pass on your awesome content to others. Adding social share buttons will only increase the burden on these customers.

Higher engagement

Shockingly, as several big brands have deleted their social share buttons, they actually found that user engagement and sharing of their content increased. When SmashingMag removed their Facebook buttons from their site, they found that traffic from Facebook increased.

Their readers, no longer mindlessly ‘liking’ the content, were now actively sharing on their timelines. The readers were engaging more with the content and discussing it more with others.

Just think about it for a moment. When people share things through the social share buttons, all they broadcast is a a generic message that they approve of this article. Without the buttons, people are encouraged to take the time to personalize their message.

People do not really need a reminder that social media exists and that it is a great place to share content. This is particularly true if the reader originally arrived from social media!

As Oliver Reichenstein of Information Architects says, “If readers are too lazy to copy and paste the URL, and write a few words about your content, then it is not because you lack these magical buttons.”

If you produce high quality content that is worth sharing, people are going to share it, regardless of the buttons. They key is that by forcing them to personalize their shares, they can actually increase the traffic to your site.

Appearance

Let’s face it, no one really likes those people who like to stand up and beg for accolades. We all tend to look the other way and roll our eyes. Yet, in the minds of your page visitors, that is exactly what you look like.

If you have a ton of shares, you look a bit greedy if you want any more. If you have only one or two shares (or worse, none at all), then the whole concept of the social proof of the content just went out the window.

Answering the question of social proof

Social media share buttons might be the go-to way to demonstrate social proof, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way. You can integrate social media with your content by republishing tweets and comments made about your content.

You can also do things like secure customer reviews and testimonials or advertise your number of subscribers to your email list to let new readers know that you are worth paying attention to.

Social share buttons have become a staple in website design for the vast majority of websites. Is this because they actually serve a purpose or is everyone just mimicking everyone else? We venture to say it is likely the latter.

This debate is likely to continue for a number of years, but in the future it is likely that the buttons will go the way of the old Digg buttons we used to see everywhere.

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