Thursday, 21 September 2023

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News publishers face declining Facebook referrals amid Meta’s shift from news

A decline in Facebook referral traffic has significantly impacted major news publishers such as Reach in the UK and Buzzfeed in the US.

Data reveals that Facebook’s share of publishers’ social referral traffic fell from 15% in mid-2022 to around 7-8% by June 2023.

Despite the reduction, Facebook still remains the largest source of social referral traffic, generating nearly seven times more traffic than Twitter, its closest competitor.

Historically, Facebook traffic for publishers has shown cyclical behaviour, with the recent dip potentially being temporary and consistent with the platform’s historical pattern.

Several factors can explain the dwindling referrals. One hypothesis links the downturn to Facebook’s (Meta’s parent company) ongoing battle with worldwide legislators over remuneration to publishers for the use of their content.

After Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code implementation in 2021 and Canada’s forthcoming Online News Act, Facebook has been suspected of intentionally deprioritizing news content to resist such legal pressures.

Another plausible factor is Facebook’s increased emphasis on short-format video content, in response to the rise of TikTok. Facebook’s introduction of ‘Reels’ on Instagram and Facebook may have led to algorithmic changes, giving priority to video over text-based content.

Data from Chartbeat and Similarweb indicates a significant drop in Facebook traffic to publishers over the years.

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In 2018, Facebook accounted for 27% of the external page views of 1,350 global publishers.

By April 2023, this figure had fallen to 11%. Smaller publishers witnessed the largest decline, with Facebook referral traffic reducing to just 2% of its volume at the start of 2018.

The closure of Buzzfeed News serves as a stark example of the vulnerable position of publishers reliant on social media referrals.

In two years, visits to Buzzfeed News from Facebook dropped from 261,669 in April 2021 to 124,825 by March 2023. Overall, the number of visits to fell from 152.6 million to less than 100 million.

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Facebook’s diminishing role, along with changes to its algorithm favoring “family and friends” content, have negatively affected social media-dependent publishers.

A recent report by Meta claimed that news content plays a “small and diminishing role” on its platform, contributing to less than 3% of content viewed by Facebook users.

Legacy and digital native sites have all witnessed a sharp decline in Facebook traffic. Among the most affected was Refinery 29, a Vice-owned women’s publisher, which saw a 92% drop in referrals from April 2021 to March 2023.

While the situation seems daunting, it remains to be seen how publishers will adapt to the situation and whether Facebook will change its stance towards news publishers.

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