BOSTON, MA: Social media platforms play an increasingly important role in directing online consumer traffic, as new research shows people now rely less on homepages and search engines than ever before.

According to content discovery specialist Shareaholic, based on data collected from more than 300,000 websites reaching a global audience of more than 400m unique monthly visitors, the top eight social networks – Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and YouTube – drove 31.24% of overall traffic to sites in December 2014, up from 22.71% a year earlier.

As one might expect, Facebook dominated the list, accounting for almost one quarter (24.63%) of all social referrals in December 2014, a share that had climbed by more than two percentage points during the quarter.

Not only has the total number of Facebook users grown in recent years but so too has their engagement, as Shareaholic noted how the time spent daily by the average user on the site had almost trebled over the past three years.

Only Pinterest offered any serious challenge to this ascendancy, with a 5.06% share, down from a high of 7.10% in March 2014. The remainder had less than 1% each, ranging from 0.82% for Twitter to 0.01% in the case of YouTube; their combined share was a mere 1.55%.

While the use of social media sites is generally fairly evenly divided between the sexes, with a slight bias in favour of men, Pinterest is skewed heavily in the other direction, in the US at least, and this, said Shareaholic, was limiting its mass market appeal. 

The platform has tweaked the site to make it more gender neutral and reports more of an even split in international markets such as Korea, India and Japan. But it faces an uphill challenge in the US, according to Robert Kozinets, a professor of marketing at York University's business school in Toronto.

"It's more stigmatising for a man to be on a woman's site than the reverse," he told the Wall Street Journal. "The perception is that it weakens a man's social standing."

Of YouTube, Shareaholic observed that it is no longer the sole gatekeeper of video views, as Facebook's autoplay videos have stolen much of its traffic. But it added that it still had a role and that marketers should look to maximise potential reach by publishing videos to both sites.

Data sourced from Shareaholic, Wall Street Journal; additional content by Warc staff