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May 9, 2024

Facebook’s referral traffic for publishers down 50% in 12 months

Referrals to news sites from Facebook have fallen 50% in one year

By Aisha Majid

Facebook referral traffic continues to plummet for news publishers as Meta’s turn away from the news industry continues.

New data shared with Press Gazette from publisher analytics firm Chartbeat and digital intelligence platform Similarweb show just how steep that fall has been. 

Aggregate Facebook traffic to a group of 792 news and media sites that have been tracked by the Chartbeat since 2018 shows that referrals to the sites have plunged by 58% in the last six years from 1.3 billion in March 2018 to 561 million last month. Traffic from Facebook fell by 50% in the last 12 months alone as the decline shows little sign of slowing.

As a share of total page views coming from external, search and social, Facebook referrals are now less than a quarter of their 2018 level, down from 30% in March 2018 to 7% in March 2024.

Changes to the Google search algorithm over the last 18 months have led to falling traffic for many news publishers, with matters compounded for many by the last series of updates rolled out in March.

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The UK’s biggest commercial news publisher Reach has reported page views down by a third in the first three months of 2024.

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Smaller sites have particularly hard hit by Facebook changes

Last year Reach said falling referrals from Facebook (along with declining referral traffic from Google and lower yields from programmatic advertising) had contributed to a decline in its digital revenues in 2023 of 15% year-on-year.

The UK’s largest commercial newbrand, The Sun meanwhile also attributed reduced digital advertising revenue in part to the "volatility of social platforms’ approach toward news content."

The sentiment is shared more widely across the industry. Earlier this year, a survey of nine B2C publishers and four B2B publishers in the UK by the Association of Online Publishers and Deloitte found that off-platform revenues had fallen by 47% in the final quarter of 2023 with the researchers citing Facebook’s decision to deprioritise news in user feeds as a major cause.

Globally, almost two thirds (63%) of 302 worldwide respondents to a survey by the Reuters Institute for Digital Journalism meanwhile said that they were worried about the decline of referrals from Facebook and X. 

Chartbeat data shows that Facebook page views to large publishers (with over 100,000 average daily page views) and medium-sized outlets (who count between 10,000 and 100,000 average daily page views) are half of their March 2018 levels.

Smaller publishers have been even harder hit. Combined page view referrals from Facebook for the 316 smaller publishers in the analysis (i.e. those with less than 10,000 average daily page views) stand at just 2% of March 2018 levels. As the chart below suggests however, this decline has been part of a more widespread fall off in page views coming from all social networks and search indicated by the fact that Facebook's share of page views from social, search and external has held up slightly better for small sites.

Reach sites hit by falling Facebook traffic 

While the shuttering of Buzzfeed News and the downfall of Vice made headlines last year, data from Similarweb on Facebook referrals to individual sites indicates that both new and well-established names are finding that Meta’s turn away from news has hit their traffic.

While Similarweb data is only available for desktop - which represents a small minority of traffic for the large majority of sites - sentiment among the industry suggests these trends apply to all traffic.

Of the 58 major news sites included in our analysis, all but four saw a smaller share of social page views from Facebook in March 2024 when compared to the same month in 2021.

Youth-focused publisher Unilad maintains the highest share of social media referrals from Facebook at 45%. This however is half of the 90% of social page views for Unilad that came from Facebook three years ago. Fellow social and youth-focused publisher Upworthy similarly has seen its share of social referrals from Facebook plunge from 49% in March 2021 to 13% in March 2024. Bustle was one of the few sites in our analysis to buck the trend. The share of social referrals from Facebook to the women's publisher's site increased from 6% to 11% between 2021 and 2024.

Several legacy publishers saw large drops. The Independent saw share of social referrals from Facebook fall from 19% in 2021 to 6% in 2024. Reach's The Mirror saw its share of referrals plummet from 22% to 7%, while the fall for the Daily Star (also a Reach newsbrand) was from 25% to 5%. Page views from Facebook to mirror.co.uk fell from 2.3 million in December 2022 to 286,000 last month - a 90% drop.

In recent years, changes to Facebook's algorithm, which include a 2018 decision to prioritise content from "family and friends" in its News Feed, have hit the news industry hard. Owner Meta has additionally stopped giving grants to publishers, sharing ad revenue and in 2022 announced that it would be dropping Instant Articles which allow news links to open in a quicker-to-load, mobile-friendly format within the Facebook app. 

Last month Meta announced that it would be closing Facebook’s news tab feature in Australia and would not renewing the news licensing deals it struck with Australian publishers following the introduction of the landmark News Media Bargaining Code. Similar changes have been seen in UK, France and Germany.

In response publishers have adopted various strategies, with some choosing to up their short-form video game in a bid to grow their followings on other platforms such as Tiktok while some are hoping to drive more referrals from WhatsApp and LinkedIn. Others have sought to increase direct engagement with their audiences through newsletters, subscriptions and podcasts.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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