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May 4, 2023

As Reach warns of traffic slowdown: How Facebook referrals to publishers have plummeted

Data from Chartbeat and Similarweb shows how news publisher Facebook traffic has fallen.

By Aisha Majid

Facebook referral traffic has plummeted for news publishers amid Meta’s ongoing turn away from the news industry.

Data shared with Press Gazette from publisher analytics firm Chartbeat and digital intelligence platform Similarweb highlights the extent of the fall.

The analysis confirms a warning issued by the UK’s biggest local and national news publisher Reach on Wednesday. With digital revenue down 14.5% year-on-year in the first four months of 2023, Reach blamed a page-view slowdown on “recent changes to the way Facebook presents news content”.

For 1,350 global publishers included in Chartbeat’s data, 27% of page views coming from external, search and social in January 2018 came from Facebook (2 billion page views). In April 2023, this was down to 11% (1.5 billion).

While sites of all sizes have been affected by the fall in traffic coming from Facebook smaller publishers have been most affected.

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Across 486 small publishers (i.e. those with less than 10,000 average daily page views) included in the Chartbeat data, Facebook referral traffic in April represented just 2% of its volume at the start of 2018. For the largest publishers (over 100,000 average daily page views) this was down 24%, while for medium-sized outlets (between 10,000 and 100,000 average daily page views), the fall was 46%.

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Facebook and the demise of Buzzfeed News

The closure of Buzzfeed News last month highlights the precarious position of publishers whose strategy depends on referrals from social media platforms.

Although Similarweb’s social referral data applies to desktop visits only which account for a minority of web traffic, the direction of travel is clear. In just two years, the number of visits to Buzzfeed News from Facebook fell from 261,669 in April 2021 to 124,825 this March - a fall of 110%.

Buzzfeed.com saw a similar dip, with Facebook referrals falling by 70% in the same period. As the chart below also shows, while the number of referrals from other social networks has also fallen in the last several years, the fall for Facebook has been the most pronounced.

In April 2020, (desktop) referrals from Facebook accounted for 76% of Buzzfeed's social referrals compared to just 34% in March 2023.

Facebook's diminishing role has also affected social media-dependent publishers' overall audiences. Two years ago, according to Similarweb, there were 152.6 million visits to Buzzfeed.com, compared to less than 100 million in recent months. The publisher has also attributed the declining time spent with its content to changes with Facebook.

In recent years, changes to Facebook's algorithm and its move away from news have hit publishers on the platform.

A 2014 change to its algorithm aimed at reducing "clickbait" affected the traffic of viral publishers such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed while another update in 2018 designed to prioritise content from "family and friends" over that from publishers in its News Feed hit the news industry further. In 2022 Facebook announced that it would be dropping Instant Articles which allows news links to open in a quicker-to-load, mobile-friendly format within the Facebook app.

Last month Facebook owner Meta commissioned a report that claimed that news content plays a "small and diminishing role" on its platform. The report, which was published shortly before the introduction of new UK legislation designed to force Meta and Google to pay publishers for the use of their news content, claimed that links to news stories account for less than 3% of what Facebook users around the world see in their feeds. The report authors made a "rough estimate" that publishers derive on average 1% to 1.5% of their total revenue from referrals back to their websites from content shared on Facebook.

Similarweb data for 28 legacy and digital native sites selected by Press Gazette shows that both types of publisher have seen traffic from Facebook fall sharply. All of the 28 sites in our list, which includes 14 legacy publishers and 14 digital native publishers, saw a large reduction in their share of social traffic that came from Facebook, while all but one (conservative news aggregator Drudge Report) saw a significant fall in the number of Facebook referrals between 2021 and 2023. Again, while the data is desktop only, inclusion of mobile visits would likely reveal a similar downwards trend.

Vice-owned women's youth and lifestyle-focused publisher Refinery 29 saw the largest fall in referrals among our list (down 92% between April 2021 and March 2023). It was followed by two Reach sites, express.co.uk and manchestereveningnews.co.uk, which each saw Facebook referrals down 87% in the same period.

Reach, in its four-month trading update published this week, cited changes to the way Facebook presents news content as a key factor driving falling page views for the publisher.

The data also suggests that Facebook's importance among social networks has also been falling. In April 2020, 95% of Ladbible's desktop social referrals came from Facebook. This was 49% in March this year. The figure for sun.co.uk in the same period fell from 75% to 25%. For the Daily Mail, meanwhile, the share fell from 59% to 19% with more of its desktop social referral traffic, at least, coming from Twitter and just as much coming from Youtube.

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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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