There’s this implicit deal news publishers made during the rise of major tech platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter: We’ll spend time, money, and staff resources to invest in you and build up our followings on your platform as long as you continue to send traffic back to us. The problem is that this deal — this assumption — was never signed off on by the platforms themselves.
Yes, these platforms do send a boatload of traffic. If you look at the analytics dashboard of any major media company you’re likely to see sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter listed among the top five traffic referrers. So publishers can be forgiven if they looked at these numbers and assumed a mutually-beneficial relationship that would extend far into the future. It’s only been quite recently that they have begun to realize that this relationship was built on false assumptions.
Take Google for instance. Google was the original traffic-sending behemoth that could make-or-break a website’s success. In the mid-aughts, it became such an important source of traffic that an entire cottage industry, SEO, sprang up to help companies better cater to it. But if you’re a regular user of Google like I am, you may have noticed that Google search results have been increasingly modified so as not to require a single click to a non-Google website. Go Google the phrase “movie times” and the name of your city. Or ask Google how many small businesses there are in the U.S.. Hell, just Google any famous person:
Increasingly, Google is getting better at guessing what information you’re actually looking for and serving it up to you at the top of search results so you don’t have to scroll through some pesky websites to find it. As Marco Arment pointed out, this has led to a noticeable traffic decline, especially with independent blogs. “Are the people who are making great content online doing it despite the search regime, or [are they] enabled by it?” asked Seth Godin. “For the first ten years of the web, the answer was obvious. I’m not sure it is any longer.”
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Of course, for the past few years that focus has shifted much more toward social, with many publishers reporting that the majority of their traffic is coming from Facebook. But even though these platforms have become extremely valuable in terms of driving readers, some journalists have come to realize the benefits derived from their social investments aren’t necessarily commensurate to the amount of work they’ve put into them. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson came to this realization when he looked at his Twitter analytics dashboard and noticed that only a tiny percentage of those who saw or interacted with his tweets ever bothered clicking on his links.
It’s fair to come away from these metrics thinking that Twitter is worthless. But that’s an unsophisticated conclusion. The more sophisticated takeaway is that Twitter is worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to your website, because Twitter is not a portal for outbound links, but rather a homepage for self-contained pictures and observations.
True, but it’s worth noting that it wasn’t long ago that you could do little on Twitter other than post text or links, and so the click-through rate was probably slightly higher. Now, Twitter has advanced to allowing you to upload photos directly to it, play videos without having to leave the site, and view headlines and summaries of an article within a Twitter card. These platforms only send traffic to outside websites as long as doing so is beneficial to their user growth. Twitter and Facebook have no-doubt benefited enormously from having their share and follow buttons plastered across every website on the internet. But once they’ve reached a certain level of growth, their focus then shifts toward keeping those users on-platform. Not just because that allows them to serve more ads, but also because they believe many off-platform websites are shitty and detract from the user experience.
This is Facebook’s main argument for why publishers should host their mobile content within its ecosystem. “Reading news on a smartphone is still a very bad experience most of the time,” Facebook’s chief product officer recently said at an event. “We want to try and make that a better experience for publishers.”
Unfortunately for publishers, they’ve positioned themselves so it’s difficult for them to say no. For years they’ve spent significant resources on improving their presences on these platforms, assuming that these were the avenues through which readers would find them. They never paused to wonder whether those avenues would close down once the publishers were no longer needed. As Marco Arment concluded, the pendulum has swung too far in these platforms’ direction, and I share his pessimism for what this means for the future.
“I hope the pendulum starts to swing back soon, because it hasn’t yet,” he wrote. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does.”
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