Publisher website traffic has entered a third algorithmic age

The nature of publisher website traffic is changing. If you’re in publishing, you probably think a lot about website traffic.

How do I increase traffic to my website?

Where is my website traffic coming from?

Why is my website traffic dropping? Or rising?

Most publisher business models rely — too much — on driving a high volume of traffic to your website.

Still, even if you’re building a healthy business model with a mix of ad revenue, memberships and/or subscriptions, and other revenue like events or commerce, you still need to get lots of people to come to your website if you hope to have them get to know your brand and build a meaningful relationship with it.

So, how do you grow traffic to your website?

Today’s traffic landscape looks very different from the landscape of the past. To understand where we are today, it’s useful to understand where we’ve been.

Here, then, is a brief overview of the history of publisher web traffic — breaking things into three ages, spanning roughly the year 2000 to today.

The First Age of Publisher Website Traffic: The SEO Age (2000 – 2010)

Publishers began dipping their toes into this whole Internet fad back in the mid-1990s. The New York Times began publishing daily on the World Wide Web on January 22, 1996.

Still, it’s fair for our purposes here to consider publisher website traffic before 2000 to be prehistory.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that web publishing took off, and traditional publishers, blogs, and web-only publications began seriously thinking about (and strategizing around) traffic.

This age was dominated by three types of traffic:

  1. Homepage/bookmarked traffic (you wanted to read the New York Times online, so you navigated there yourself)
  2. Link traffic (your favorite blog linked out to a new one you’d never heard of, and you followed the link)
  3. SEO traffic (largely the same as today, with a less advanced algorithm)

The SEO age of traffic rewarded a few things:

  • Existing brand recognition
  • Interesting content and new voices
  • High-volume SEO strategies

Existing brands, of course, came into the ’00s with the huge advantage that their print (or TV) audiences would specifically go looking for their websites. New blogs, meanwhile, could find an audience quickly with a few self-promotional emails to people with bigger, existing audiences.

High-volume SEO strategies — employed by news aggregators like the Huffington Post (founded 2005) and Business Insider (founded 2007) — allowed newcomers to soak up traffic from Google by flooding the zone. They could pump out content on hot topics and niche topics (e.g. “What is Bill Gates’s net worth?”) with short and low-cost articles.

Overall, this era allowed many flowers to bloom. Some were interesting niche voices who may never have been heard in an era before publishing was democratized by the Web. Some were merely lower-quality but high-volume.

The Second Age of Publisher Website Traffic: The Social Age (2011 – 2017)

The second major age of publisher website traffic was dominated by social media.

Facebook was founded in 2004, but it was around 2011 that it began to dominate the media ecosystem. This was when the company launched public figure and company pages, which users could follow. Facebook followed this up in 2015, with Facebook Instant Articles, where publishers were asked to publish directly on Facebook. This meant trading faster loading of publishers’ articles for Facebook owning the relationship between publisher and reader completely.

The quintessential publisher of the social era was BuzzFeed News, launched in 2011.

By 2015, The Atlantic was talking about how Facebook had eaten the Internet. By that year, Vox, for instance, was getting 40% of its traffic from Facebook. In that year, Facebook overtook Google as the top referrer to publishers.

The social era of traffic rewarded these things:

  • Building a large Facebook page following for your brand
  • Cat videos
  • Trolling opinion pieces (designed to make people angry) and confessional personal essays

In general, during this era, traditional publishers — and new, social-first publishers — tried to gear their content to make people ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Publishers, many encouraged by Facebook, also attempted to “pivot to video” in an effort to suit Facebook’s evolving preference for video content.

Overall, this era was extremely damaging to publishers. They sunk resources into a platform over which they had zero control — Facebook — at the expense of their core businesses.

Meanwhile, Facebook soaked up publishers’ ad revenue and then cut off publishers’ access to their own audiences on platform. This left paid ads as the only reliable way to reach Facebook followers that publishers already had spent years and dollars accumulating.

The Third Age of Publisher Website Traffic: The Algorithms-Plus Age (2017 – ????)

The peak of the Social Era was also when it started falling apart. In 2015, Facebook announced — in the first of many such announcements — that it would be de-emphasizing news in favor of posts from friends.

And thus began a long decline in Facebook referral traffic to publishers. By 2017, Google once-again surpassed Facebook as a traffic referrer to publishers. Website traffic analytics firm Parse.ly found a 25% decline in Facebook referrals to publishers between February and October 2017.

Publisher-Facebook relations hit a low with an early 2018 algorithm change that came to be known as the Facebook Apocalypse. While that “apocalypse” may have been less-dramatic than some feared — and Facebook traffic to publishers stabilized in 2019 — that is largely due to publishers accepting the reality that Facebook is now an almost entirely pay-to-play platform and adjusting strategy and spending accordingly.

So, where does that leave us today?

Well, it’s early days yet. But there are some interesting features of the new media landscape that is emerging — features that provide opportunities for traffic growth for old and new publishers.

To be clear up front, Google and Facebook remain the behemoths — taken together, they still make up around 80% of external website referral traffic.

But some interesting opportunities have emerged.

The most interesting for news publishers are platforms designed specifically around news reading.

Among the biggest of these, according to Parse.ly’s live referrer dashboard:

  • Flipboard: 1.5% of external referral traffic
  • Toutiao: 0.8% of external referral traffic
  • SmartNews: 0.6% of external referral traffic

And, interestingly, there’s also what Parse.ly calls Google (Other) at 2% of external referral traffic. Google (Other) encompasses various Google products with news-article recommendations built in, such as Google Discover, which recommends stories within the Google apps on smartphones.

There is also Apple News, a Flipboard competitor product that assembles a newsfeed for its users across mobile and desktop Apple products.

Now, Facebook has 2.45 billion users to Flipboard’s 145 million. But Flipboard users are extremely active news consumers, as opposed to the billions of Facebook users who may prefer to see their cousin’s baby pictures to your latest story. (Sorry!)

SmartNews has 20 million users.

Toutiao has 120 million daily active users (mostly in China).

Apple News has 85 million monthly active users.

As Facebook de-emphasizes news, then, we’re seeing news-first apps rush in to fill the void.

Most of these platforms combine a few elements:

  • Algorithmic, machine-learning driven curation
  • A light top level of human-editor curation
  • Personalization — either active or passive — where the platform learns what you care about

For instance, when you join Flipboard as a user, it will ask you to choose from a list of topics that you may wish to follow. You can also, if you so choose, look up your favorite publications (or even individuals) and follow them. Unlike with Facebook, if you follow a publication on Flipboard you will see its articles in your Flipboard feed. Based on the topics and publications you’ve chosen to follow, Flipboard will serve you news based on an algorithm. You can also choose to follow Flipboard’s own recommendations, such as their Flipboard Picks, curated by a small team of editors.

Apple News and Google Discover work similarly, incorporating user behavior into what articles they choose to show you going forward. Did you click on an article about the British royal family once? You may see the adventures of Will & Kate more in your feed going forward.

What opportunities does this Algorithms-Plus age present to publishers?

For those with smart platform-optimization strategies, this could be a big opportunity to break through and capture audiences within your niche.

The other X factor here is email. At more than 2.6 billion users worldwide, email is bigger than Facebook. Email traffic can be hard to track, often counting as “direct” or “dark social” (arriving at websites without referrer data). But estimates put it as generating about 10–20% of the average publisher’s traffic. Owning your audience on email is a major new strategy that publishers are pursuing with success.

Smart publishers will always be looking to grow the amount of traffic they get from email. They can reap both the value of the traffic itself — and the stability of having significant ownership over their own audiences.

This third age of publisher traffic rewards some questionable things — and some great ones…

As in the SEO era, volume for its own sake can boost your chances of scoring an algorithmic hit.

But this new age also rewards articles with catchy headlines, great substance, and strategies that target niche audiences.

For publishers who know how to navigate it, this third age of publisher website traffic holds huge opportunities.

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