Digital Publishing: Is There a Way for Publishers to Predict Referral Web Traffic?

In journalism today, it often feels like we’re addicted to trying to squeeze web traffic from the shiny new object of the month. From Pinterest to LinkedIn to Snapchat to Reddit, we’re constantly presented with new platforms we hope to exploit for our own traffic gains, afraid we’re going to miss out on the next Facebook.

Naturally, that leads to a lot of squandered time and energy in an industry that often can’t spare either. What if there was a way to reliably predict referral traffic trends before you end up wasting your time tilting at windmills?

Enter Kelsey Arendt, a senior market analyst at Parse.ly, a web analytics platform that provides traffic data and analytics to hundreds of top news and entertainment websites. Arendt, drawing on mountains worth of data from her company’s partners, recently published a deep dive on referral traffic that does more than just show the largest outside drivers of traffic (no surprises there)—it also shows what reasonable trends you can expect in terms of growth (or decline) in 2019.

It’s something that Arendt and her colleagues have been doing for awhile, and in the past, it’s allowed them to unearth some gems, such as noticing Facebook referral traffic declining for six straight months prior to the social media giant announcing changes to its news feed algorithm.

“I want people to pay more attention to the average month-over-month change in traffic, and then the range of potential month-over-month change, and stop focusing so much on year-over-year,” Arendt said. “Year-to-year is important, but if you’re going to set reasonable goals for referral traffic, things change so fast you shouldn’t be using data from several months or years ago.”

Before we start talking about referral websites, one thing that jumped out to me from the report was that internal referral traffic—people clicking hyperlinks or related content on your page—made up 35 percent of all traffic last year. According to Arendt, that’s more than any category of external referrals, meaning it’s vital from a traffic perspective to optimize your pages to make it easy for readers to find related content.

It’s also worth pointing out that direct referrals were also up slightly compared to last year, comprising about 23 percent of all traffic to websites in Parse.ly’s network (search makes up about 20 percent, while social comes in around 11 percent). Newsletters are generally a big driver of direct traffic, so if your newsroom hasn’t developed a newsletter strategy, now might be the time to get one started.

I know Arendt said not to focus on year-to-year growth, but I think the most relevant number unearthed in her report was about referral traffic from Facebook, the data-stealing, election-throwing social media platform everyone seems to hate these days. Despite all the hemming and hawing over changes to Facebook’s algorithm and its de-emphasis of brand pages, referral traffic from the social media giant was actually up 14 percent compared to last year.

Surprised? I know I was. Interestingly, websites saw slow and consistent traffic growth for five consecutive months to end the year from Facebook, which is astonishing considering the peak-and-valley traffic results most websites garner from social media.

“Steady growth month-over-month growth like that is more likely due to engaged audiences and not changes to their algorithm,” Arendt said, who speculated that Facebook’s string of bad publicity might be forcing them to serve more quality content to keep users satisfied.

Still, editors can still expect some volatility from Facebook traffic on a month-to-month basis, according to Arendt. In any given month, traffic to your website may be up 14 percent from Facebook, but it could also be down by as much as 10 percent. Like anything else, we’re still a slave to breaking news.

As you might expect, Facebook remains the dominant traffic source among social media referrers, easily dwarfing all the referral traffic from Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter combined (Twitter in particular looks like it’s slipping as a traffic source). That doesn’t mean newsrooms or reporters that are having success on any one of those platform should suddenly start doing anything differently.

“Instagram is an interesting one. It’s small, but a lot of publishers are really interested in diving in there,” Arendt said, pointing out it’s the least reliable social platform in terms of traffic. “It could be really good for you, or it could potential kick you in the shins a little bit.”

Apologies to Bing and Yahoo!, but in terms of search traffic, Google remains dominant. Referral traffic from the all-powerful search engine actually declined slightly last year. Despite that, in any given month (again, depending on the news), editors can expect traffic to be up as much as 7 percent, which is big deal when you’re talking about a quarter of all web traffic.

Google also sends traffic to websites via Google News, its popular web aggregator. Traffic from Google News grew an astounding 120 percent year-over-year (almost all on mobile), thanks largely to changes made on the backend after merging with Google Play Newsstand, which created a single news aggregator across all platforms. As a result, Google News tops Flipboard, the Drudge Report and Yahoo! in terms of referral traffic.

One name that stood out to me combing over the Parse.ly report was SmartNews, a mobile-based news aggregator that has been buzzing in the Slack channels of engagement teams across the industry over the past few months. More than 300 news publishers in the U.S. have partnered with SmartNews, but that doesn’t prevent news stories from non-partners from ending up in the app’s feed, sending spurts of traffic to news publishers.

According to Arendt, referral traffic from SmartNews was up a whopping 145 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, and has been growing at an average of 9 percent a month (in a good month, you could see traffic from SmartNews up 17 percent). But it’s worth pointing out that while SmartNews is growing quickly, it’s still a very, very small source of referral traffic overall.

“The big picture is that quick little kickback that you saw on your site from SmartNews is happening to a lot of different sites,” Arendt said. “Even though they’re tiny, even in a bad month, you’re probably going to be gaining traffic from them. So, it’s one that’s definitely worth watching.”

 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]

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