Just last year, Parse.ly—a technology company that partners with digital publishers to provide web analytics and audience insights— reported on where audiences came from for publishers. It highlighted the quick and dominant rise of Facebook as a media distribution powerhouse, with Google coming second.
In some categories Facebook demolished the competition — for example, 87% of audiences found lifestyle content via Facebook.
In 2018, everything changed.
“At the beginning of 2018, Facebook’s algorithm changed. Even before the official announcement, a reversal in overall referral traffic occurred, as Google overtook Facebook as the top external referrer to media sites. From February to October 2017, referral traffic volume from Facebook decreased by 25% while Google traffic, with the help of AMP, took off.”
— Parse.ly Authority Report, 2018 traffic sources
Parse.ly’s Authority Report analyzed over 8 billion page views for 1 million articles in its network to present its findings. Google has overtaken Facebook hands down as far as referral rates for publishers are concerned, and others like Flipboard and Pinterest are growing, and gaining an edge.
The report advised, “looking beyond Facebook and Google search referrals could be even more important than zeroing in on aggregate trends. Are you tapping into the potential of all these “other” places? …
Maybe you catch up on news by flipping through Flipboard, scrolling through your Twitter feed, or tapping a push alert on your Android phone. Maybe you find a new recipe or gardening tip and pin it to your Pinterest board for later. Maybe a game is on and you’re following along with updates and the rest of the fans’ chatter on Twitter.”
Change of the guard
The Referrer Dashboard published by Parse.ly shows a green Facebook line dipping down, and a widening gap with the steady blue Google line.
Right now, Google Search delivers 50% of all external referral traffic to Parse.ly’s customers—a list of prominent publishers that includes Time Inc., Condé Nast, HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s share is down to 27%.
In summary, the report states, “there’s a growing potential for other traffic sources, especially when focusing on specific categories of content. Flipboard is the first choice for Travel, Science, and Health & Fitness readers after Google search and Facebook.
Pinterest has a strong showing in Home & Garden, Food & Drink, Arts & Entertainment, and Hobbies & Interests categories. And Business, Law, Government, Politics, and Sports readers are on Twitter.”
Publishers have to think like marketers
“As Facebook has changed its algorithms and a lot of the traffic that people were used to has now gone away, more publishers are getting more savvy around diversification,” said Sachin Kamdar, CEO of Parse.ly.
“Publishers are going to have to think more like a marketer. They’re going to have to think about their audience as a funnel and not thinking about gaining the most people to view their content.”
Google AMPs up its game
Google has obviously amped up its game, and the company’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) platform accounts for the greatest part of search referrals. Introduced around the same time as Facebook’s Instant Articles, and just like it, AMP is designed to speed up content delivery on mobile. Unlike Instant Articles, AMP traffic has grown steadily since launch. As per last available data, over 31 million domains have adopted AMP technology.
Technologies like AMP that speed up content delivery on mobile also lead to an average of a 2X increase in time spent on a page. Speed and user experience remain more important than ever, with 53% of mobile site visits abandoned for pages taking longer than 3 seconds to load.
“Google has clearly decided to invest in content discovery, an area that every publisher should take note of,” says Kelsey Arendt from Parse.ly. “Content discovery on Google platforms had exploded. Referrals from a source called “googleapis” and from Google Play Newsstand are on the rise.”
“Clearly, Google has invested in not only content discovery as a concept, but has prioritized it as part of their design in software and in their hardware strategy (see: homescreens on Google Pixels). Connecting their users to information that matters to them through content discovery benefits both Google as a company, and hopefully the companies that create the content. Unlike Facebook, this alignment doesn’t rely on likes or shares of fellow users; it simply relies on people choosing over time what they want to pay attention to while on their phone.”
— Google adopting the strategies that made Facebook successful in news referrals
Google’s multi-faceted effort appears to be paying off. Parse.ly’s Referrer Dashboard shows where the top players are, as a percentage of external referrers to publishers, and Google is ahead by miles.
In spite of referral traffic fragmentation like never before—with the decline of the audience stream via Facebook—Google has consolidated its position at the top of the heap, and it will take a while for the other players to catch up, if they can.