Why LinkedIn Has Slashed Referral Traffic For Publishers, Yet Again

LinkedIn has again slashed referral traffic for publishers. It isn't the first time and it won't be last as the network is pushing its own publishing platform

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2015 has seen most major social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn 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.

LinkedIn, the professional social network with more than 380 million members as of Q2 2015, has been pretty successful in offering itself as a publisher platform. Till date, LinkedIn says that one million people have published more than three million posts. This is good news for professionals to reach out to like-minded folks and also follow influencers like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, among others on the platform. But, LinkedIn is silently cutting down on the referral traffic to publishers.

As reported by Digiday, for the first four months of the year, referral traffic to SimpleReach’s 1,000 publisher base declined 44 percent, according to the firm, which provides industry content performance measurement and distribution. For the first eight months, it declined 30 percent.

LinkedIn accounted for just 0.2 percent of news and media sites’ social media traffic in the U.S. in June, according to SimilarWeb, a Web traffic research firm. Globally, the figure was half that — 0.1 percent.

What is interesting here is that the cut down on referral traffic is happening at a time when readers are sharing more content from publishers’ sites to LinkedIn by clicking share buttons on publishers’ sites. The average monthly number of articles shared to LinkedIn has soared from 500,000 to at least 3 million in the past 18 months, according to ShareThis, which puts share buttons on publishers’ sites.

“Overall engagement/shares of content posted to LinkedIn is actually increasing, which I would guess to mean more people are posting more content to LinkedIn,” said Edward Kim, SimpleReach’s CEO. “But LinkedIn isn’t further promoting that content through their network.”

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. Another one of LinkedIn’s top publishers backed up those claims while a source familiar with traffic stats at a popular business website told BuzzFeed they’d seen the same pattern in recent months.

In fact Buzzfeed’s traffic data also showed a similar trend, even if the platform has never been a top traffic referrer. “In January, incoming traffic from LinkedIn started to falter and then in March it took a swift dive and has not recovered.”

The changes seem to have started in November when LinkedIn began to implement features of Pulse, a newsreader company it purchased in April 2013 for $90 million.

Clearly LinkedIn is moving away from the traditional working ways. During the recent earnings call, LinkedIn revealed that display revenue continued to decline, decreasing approximately 30% year-over-year versus a 10% decline in the first quarter. This decline isn’t a worry for LinkedIn since it has decided to move away from display and focus on product areas. “We continue to shift our portfolio towards native content marketing and lead generation,” Steve Sordello, CFO LinkedIn Corporation had stated.

Last reported news on LinkedIn’s publishing initiatives has been its international expansion. LinkedIn already drives a global user strength, nearly 70 percent of LinkedIn members are from outside the United States, including 10 million in China. Following this LinkedIn expanded its publishing platform beyond English, it recently launched a version for Portuguese speakers. German and French markets will be added in the coming months, with more tongues thereafter.

LinkedIn obviously wants to push itself as a publishing platform after the success of its influencer program but publishers are not very happy with this move. For instance at a recent presentation, Quartz revealed that it has witnessed a sharp decline in LinkedIn traffic in 2014.

Not just Quartz, a majority of publishers who used to drive traffic from social networks are now failing to do so after networks have turned into publishing platforms. Social networks want the traffic to remain in their walled garden.

Facebook has done the same thing by cutting down the organic traffic and later on pushing large publishers to host native content on its network by providing incentives under the feature Instant Articles. Still, Facebook remains the lead source of referral traffic for many publishers.

From here on things are going to get only worse for publishers as social networks would be hosting the content and even promoting them. As BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Pretti had described earlier at the SXSW that as long as his content is sitting on social media he isn’t bothered. “Because so many publishers build their businesses on banner ads, they have to get people back to their site to make money. But that misses much of the value of social media. You should be using this distribution channel to show them content, not just a pointer to some other space.”