How Facebook & LinkedIn Are Quietly Slashing Referral Traffic Hurting Publishers

Social networks are the new publishers, Facebook, LinkedIn are already cutting down referral traffic hurting publishers. While it makes business sense for them, it's bad news for small publishers

Facebook Instant Articles

2015 has seen most major social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Twitter wanting users to spend maximum time on their networks. While Facebook has been successful to an extent, Twitter is still struggling. Having evolved from just branding to making commerce happen on their networks, they are now trying to be the publishing platforms too.

Globally, Facebook the largest social network remains the biggest source of referral traffic for a majority of publishers. During the previous quarter, Facebook, for the second time in this year moved ahead of Google in Parse.ly’s rankings. This is obviously happy news for publishers who are creating content for a Facebook audience and driving huge traffic to their platform.

But how long would Facebook allow the traffic to go beyond its closed walls? This was a question that Lighthouse Insights had raised earlier in the month of September – How Facebook Is Eventually Going To Cut Down Referral Traffic Hurting Small And Medium Publishers.

The prophecy has come true – Digiday has reported, “Referral traffic (desktop + mobile) to the top 30 Facebook publishers (as defined by their reliance on Facebook) plunged 32 percent from January to October, according to SimpleReach, a distribution analytics company. The more reliant the publisher on Facebook, the bigger the hit: Among the top 10, the drop was a steeper 42.7 percent.”

Social traffic tracker SimilarWeb looked at the 50 biggest publishers in Facebook from January to September and found that The Huffington Post’s Facebook traffic fell 60.1 percent, to 16 million. Fox News’ dropped 48.2 percent to 4.3 million. BuzzFeed’s Facebook visits fell 40.8 percent to 23.7 million. Across all 50, the biggest drop in traffic in the period took place from January to February, when publishers’ Facebook traffic fell an average of 75 percent.

The most common reason for this sudden dip is Facebook’s approach to keep users in its ecosystem while convincing publishers to host content on Facebook to get better reach and targeting features.

Earlier this year, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a new product for publishers to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook. Instant Articles debuted with rich-media stories from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and six other outlets that will be globally visible from Facebook’s iPhone app.

Later Facebook informed that it is giving access to 21 new publishers and will start displaying Instant Articles to more of its users. Washington Post was one of the celebrity publishers that decided to post every single article on the platform. That would mean about 1200 stories a day on Instant Articles.

Today Facebook is visited by more than a billion users, why would any publisher say no to such a lucrative deal? To further lure publishers, Facebook tweaked the News Feed. Facebook added time spent, after its research showed that people don’t always like or comment on stories that they find meaningful.

Publishers are already struggling with ad blocking problems and with Apple’s iOS – iOS 9 including ad blocking capabilities life has been tough for publishing industry globally. Ad-blocking will lead to almost $22 billion of lost advertising revenue this year, according to a report.

Facebook the world’s biggest social network is one of the very few choices left for publishers to get bigger reach but that means it will come at a cost. Like organic reach has evaporated, the same would be true for referral traffic gradually.

However, Facebook has categorically denied it’s sending less traffic to publishers overall. “Over the past two years, we’ve seen referral traffic to publishers from Facebook grow significantly, nearly across the board. As the number of posts to Facebook has increased substantially over the past few months, there has been a corresponding increase in the amount of potential posts to show any one person, which impacts reach.”

It isn’t Facebook alone, LinkedIn over time has been slashing referral traffic too. LinkedIn also wants to push itself as a publishing platform after the success of its influencer program. This isn’t the first time LinkedIn is doing this. Last June, Buzzfeed had reported that in a bid to become a content platform LinkedIn is cutting referral traffic of some of the big publishers.

“It’s dried up to almost nothing,” a source at one of the social network’s 15 biggest publishers told BuzzFeed, noting that referral traffic from LinkedIn began to lessen back in January and then plunged steeply in March.

Publishers may not like it but they have very limited choices. Today users are spending maximum time on social networks Some 41% of people around the world get their news from Facebook each week, a number that towers over Twitter (at 11%) despite the media’s obsession with the Twitterverse.

Reuters Digital News Report 2015 also highlighted the fact that WhatsApp, a mobile messaging platform bought by Facebook in 2014, is a popular source of news consumption in Spain and Brazil.

This is one of the key reasons why social networks are the new publishers. Facebook holds the baton and seeing the present scenario publishers will have no choice but to join its platform. Subsequently Facebook and other social networks who are aiming to have a bigger share as a publishing platform will cut down on referral traffic.

While it makes complete business sense from a social network point of view, it is the small and medium publisher that would be badly hit. And, unfortunately, there isn’t a solution for them.