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April 13, 2023

Search vs social: How referral traffic to news sites has changed in five years

Chartbeat data for 546 UK and US news sites reveals where publishers get their traffic from.

By Aisha Majid

Search has grown in importance as a traffic source over the past five years while social has declined, Press Gazette analysis of Chartbeat data reveals.

We looked at data for 546 UK and US news sites, tracked since 2018 by the analytics firm, to uncover which sources are seeing growing traffic for publishers, and which are declining.

Based on the sites in our analysis, the share of page views that publishers received from search increased slightly from 33% in the first year of our dataset (covering the 12 months from April 2018) to 35% in the year to March 2023.

The share of page views from social networks meanwhile declined slightly from 32% to 30% over the same period. 

Press Gazette looked at page view referrals from all channels except internal, meaning page views generated once a user is within a site, as we were interested in understanding how users find news from outside a publisher's own property. Our analysis included page views coming from social networks, external sources (which Chartbeat defines as pickups from sites across the internet) and direct traffic from visitors who navigate directly to landing pages on a website.

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Search was the main source of external traffic to news websites across the five years of data, with the exception of a brief period in 2019 when social media overtook it. Some 95% of page views generated from searches come from Google, with other search engines such as Bing and Microsoft accounting for less than 5% between them.

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While the share of page views from search has trended up slightly, the increase in volume of page views from search – and engaged time – has been more dramatic. Both increased by 21% over the five-year period analysed.

Social referrers: Facebook still on top

Despite Facebook’s turn away from news, the platform's share of traffic remains much higher than other social networks. Facebook generated over eight times as many page views as Twitter in the last year. 

The number of page views referred from the Meta-owned social network has remained largely steady outside a temporary surge in page views during the pandemic. (The temporary surge in page views reflects the overall increase in interest in news in 2020 and 2021). There were 6.8 billion monthly page views from Facebook to the 546 sites in our study in the first 12 months of our data, rising to 7.2 billion in 2022/23 although page views appear more recently to be trending down.

Other social networks such as Linkedin, Reddit and Pinterest (excluding Twitter and Instagram which were analysed separately) generated far fewer page views than Facebook but did see a dramatic increase in the number of page views generated. In the 12 months from April 2022 to March 2023 these social networks generated 876.7 million page views – up 70% from the 516.4 million between April 2018 and March 2019. 

Engaged time for these social networks also increased by almost half (48%) over the same period. In contrast, the amount of time users spend with a publisher’s website after being referred from Facebook declined from 356.1 billion seconds in the first 12 months of our dataset to 273 billion seconds. Twitter also saw a drop in engaged time. 

Aggregators: Growing fast

Aggregators were one of the fastest-growing traffic referral sources. Data for 14 aggregators including Google News, News Break, Smartnews, Flipboard and MSN shows that combined page views were up 88% in five years, with page views up from 2.1 billion to 4 billion. 

Google News generated the most page views among the analysed aggregators, followed by US local news aggregator News Break, which was set up by former head of Yahoo Labs in China Jeff Zheng in 2015. Apple News, while one of the most used news apps, generated few page views as it is not set up to refer traffic back to publishers’ sites. 

What can publishers do to diversify traffic?

While search remains dominant, Google algorithm changes can cause search traffic to fluctuate.

Chartbeat marketing chief Jill Nicholson recommends publishers successfully diversify their traffic sources by thinking about what they are trying to achieve with each platform.

"Focus your platform strategy. Hone in on promoting the content that is most likely to engage visitors from a particular source. Engagement correlates with loyalty, giving you the best opportunity to convert external visitors to more frequent readers," she says.

"Think carefully about the role a platform plays in the larger content ecosystem: Some platforms like Google drive a large amount of traffic back to publishers' owned and operated sites. Some like Instagram are not inherently built for the purpose of link sharing and are more successful in supporting brand awareness and affinity strategies. You can tailor your content to fit the platform, but you can never tailor the platform to fit your goals."

They should however be careful about jumping into new platforms heavily without experimenting first, Nicholson adds.

“Use experimentation to invest strategically: As new platforms emerge, resist the urge to go all-in just because the platform itself is growing users. Begin with small actions that will allow you to collect data on how readers behave and which areas of content are the most likely to engage that particular audience."

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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.
  • Business owner/co-owner
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  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
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  • Other C-Suite
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  • President/Partner
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  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
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  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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