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“Multi-million spike in pageviews”: The company behind TikTok is now shaking up news aggregation

The MIT Technology Review called it “the insanely popular Chinese news app that you’ve never heard of.” The app, Toutiao (Chinese for ‘headlines’) is one of the largest news aggregation apps in China. It is installed on over 250M monthly unique devices

Toutiao is the flagship product of Bytedance, the world’s most valuable startup ahead of global successes like Uber, Airbnb and SpaceX. In October 2018, Bytedance completed a $3B investment that raised its valuation to $75B. The investors included SoftBank, KKR and General Atlantic. 

The company is now looking at dominating the international market with the English version of Toutiao called TopBuzz. The app is quietly climbing the charts and making its presence felt by driving substantial traffic to Western publishers. 

Toutiao aims to develop more AI-focused services, and to expand internationally. The ultimate goal is to become the world’s number-one online content destination, eclipsing the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the likes of the New York Times and Buzzfeed in their own markets.

Will Knight, Senior Editor at MIT Technology Review

1.8M to 23M users in a year

TopBuzz grew from 1.8M monthly active users in November 2017, to roughly 23M active monthly users in October 2018 globally (except China, where Toutiao is available instead), according to Tubefilter. These are the latest available figures for the app. ByteDance does not regularly release official user numbers for its apps.

Global news aggregators, like Toutiao and SmartNews, are beginning to dramatically increase their traffic referral footprints in the US, according to Parse.ly.

Nick Lioudis, Content Manager at Chartbeat credited TopBuzz for “a multi-million spike in pageviews” across their publishers late last year. He wrote that in December alone, the app referred nearly 34M pageviews across Chartbeat publishers worldwide. 

This was a 36x increase from January 2017. Half of this traffic came from the US. The company also noted increasingly significant share from countries such as Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and the UK.

TopBuzz referral traffic since 2017 through February, peaking around December 2018

Currently, TopBuzz ranks at #8 among top free news apps on Google Play Store (US), above Flipboard, Fox News, Washington Post Select, Daily Mail Online, CNN and even Google News, according to SimilarWeb. On iTunes (US), it is at #26, ahead of BBC News, Washington Post, Flipboard and The Economist.

Here’s a quick look at TopBuzz:

“Push the boundaries of machine learning and AI” 

TopBuzz is similar to Toutiao which uses artificial intelligence to create personalized feeds of news and videos based on users’ interests. It’s like Facebook without the social element. The app does not need users to follow any publisher to display content. Instead of seeing posts by friends, users see an endless feed of articles and videos when they launch the app. 

Screenshot of TopBuzz mobile app
Screenshot of Toutiao mobile app

The app uses machine and deep learning algorithms to create personalized feeds of news and videos based on users’ interests. While Facebook and Twitter also use machine learning to refine recommendations, they rely more heavily on social connections. 

When a user first opens Toutiao, the system uses basic data like location, age etc. to create the feed. It shows a wide variety of articles to learn about the user’s preferences. Over time, the app learns through usage including taps, swipes, time of the day the user reads, time spent on each article, pauses, comments, interactions with the content and location.

Toutiao combines data from three key areas to create an engaging feed. These are: 

  • User profiles: This is initially built on the app’s understanding of the user’s demographics (age, location, gender, and socio-economic status).
  • Content: The system uses natural language processing to determine if an article is trending, whether it’s long or short, and its timeliness (evergreen or time-bound).
  • Context: It also accounts for location-related data like geography, weather, local news, etc.

The algorithms then identify the strongest statistical match between a user’s profile, its own content profile, and context to create the feed. The matching is meant to optimize the percent of articles a user reads (clicks on), and the percent of articles he completes.

Over time, as the app collects user information, its recommendations get further refined. It learns quickly and for most users, takes less than 24 hours to learn their interests (indicated by 80% read rates). This leads to a high degree of user retention (>45%).

Toutiao uses a text classification algorithm to determine if an article is fake news, uses clickbait titles, or doesn’t meet quality standards. The system also leans on user moderators to flag fake articles, and employs human moderators to arbitrate on disputed reporting.

Toutiao Lab’s mission is to push the boundaries of machine learning and AI and to transfer that into products.

Lei Li, Research Scientist and Director at ByteDance AI Lab

Li also said that Toutiao’s way of surfacing content is less of a filter bubble compared to Facebook. He explained that the recommendation algorithms has been designed to offer some content outside the range of a user’s preferences. “Our [machine learning] models will try to expand your horizons, your interests,” he emphasized.

Toutiao makes money through advertising by inserting an ad every three or five pieces of news. As the app learns about the reader, it can provide targeted advertising that is very relevant to the consumers. 

The system encourages individuals and media organizations to create their own official accounts for self-publishing. Toutiao has more than 1.2 million registered content publishers on the platform, from businesses and media outlets to bloggers. 

TopBuzz has also officially partnered with 200,000 publishers and independent creators to syndicate, license, and distribute their works. Some of its partners include Hearst, CNN, The New York Times and BuzzFeed.

YouTube creators can sync their channels to TopBuzz. Bloggers can publish directly via its own content management system or deliver their content through RSS.

We don’t see ourselves as competitive with other creator platforms, but rather additive. For a creator thinking about joining TopBuzz, the opportunity is to reach new and relevant audience through our global content ecosystem.

Mitch Rotter, Head of English Content Operations at TopBuzz 

With TikTok, TopBuzz and several other apps, ByteDance is looking to grow in overseas markets including the US. This has been a trend among China’s technology firms for the past few years. 

Here’s Bloomberg’s coverage on ByteDance’s global expansion strategy and the challenges it faces:

“Catching on with US consumers”

Arjun Kharpal, CNBC’s Senior Technology Correspondent based in Guangzhou, China writes, “Mobile applications developed by some of China’s biggest technology firms have been catching on with US consumers in the past few years, underscoring how companies in the world’s second-largest economy are expanding beyond their domestic market and Asia.”

According to data compiled by Sensor Tower for CNBC, apps developed by Chinese firms, or by companies with large Chinese investors brought in revenues of $674.8M in the US in the first quarter of 2019. This marks a more than 67% YoY rise in revenue compared to the same period last year.

Chinese app publishers are becoming more adept at understanding what resonates with US consumers, whether it be carving out a new niche in social media with apps such as TikTok or capitalizing on hot trends among Western gamers with battle royale titles including PUBG Mobile.

Sanders Tran, Data Analyst at Sensor Tower

Changing names and branding have helped Chinese apps succeed with American users. Hanish Bhatia, Senior Analyst at Counterpoint Research told CNBC, “Overall, there is low awareness about the origin of these apps. At the same time, it is important for these apps to connect with users in the premium markets.”

Chinese tech firms and apps are continuously making efforts to get rid of the Chinese tag. The idea is to position themselves as a global player.

Hanish Bhatia, Senior Analyst at Counterpoint Research

Tran adds, “They have also greatly expanded their understanding of user acquisition in the U.S. market, which has allowed them to mount much more effective marketing campaigns. They’ve also backed these up with substantial spending, frequently topping the advertiser charts on Facebook and other mobile app install networks.”

Bytedance: Among world’s top innovators

Last year, ByteDance was recognized as a top AI innovator by CBInsight which included the company on its AI 100 List. Fast Company ranked it at #16 “for nosing out the news,” in its 2018 World’s Most Innovative Companies list. 

Bytedance has spent the last year-plus acquiring and investing in apps around the world where its AI can improve the experience, from U.S.-based Flipagram and Musically to Europe’s News Republic.

Most Innovative Companies 2018, Fast Company

It’s short video app TikTok is already very popular worldwide. The app hit 500M monthly active users globally in July 2018. Between December 2017 and 2018 it added 75M new users—a 275% YoY growth.

People now talk about a new crop of companies that are coming up. TMD is the new acronym that you’ll be hearing a lot about. Toutiao which is an AI driven news site which is massive. The actual company is Bytedance but their flagship product is Toutiao. Meituan is another which is a sort of online services platform. And finally D stands for Didi Chuxing which is like the Uber of China but on steroids.

Kaiser Kuo, former Baidu Director in the documentary New Money: The Greatest Wealth Creation Event in History (2019)

ByteDance has done what was thought to be impossible in China and that is breaking the dominance of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT). It also has Google and Facebook’s attention. 

Recently, TechCrunch reported that Google is developing a Toutiao like news app for China. Facebook launched a TikTok clone called Lasso late last year. It is yet to take off.

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