Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Small steps, but: Most big American newspaper newsrooms are now led by someone other than a white man
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Oct. 22, 2018, 10:42 a.m.

What happens when Facebook goes down? People read the news

Without a News Feed to scroll through, more people head directly to news sites for their information fix.

What would the world look like without Facebook?

At Chartbeat, we got a glimpse into that on August 3, 2018, when Facebook went down for 45 minutes and traffic patterns across the web changed in an instant. What did people do? According to our data, they went directly to publishers’ mobile apps and sites (as well as to search engines) to get their information fix. This window into consumer behavior reflects broader changes we see taking hold this year around content discovery, particularly on mobile.

This is good news for publishers.

Traffic trends reverse

Despite volatility driven by algorithm shifts and intense news cycles, user demand for content (represented by traffic across the web) is quite stable. But the sources of that traffic are anything but static. In fact, we’ve seen a major reversal in the specific sources driving traffic to publisher sites in the past year.

Key shifts:

  • Mobile traffic has seen double-digit growth and surpassed desktop, which saw double-digit declines.
  • On mobile, Facebook is down nearly 40 percent since January 2017, while Google search has seen a 2× growth in that same time period. That means increases in Google search referral traffic have more than offset any declines in Facebook referral traffic.
  • Additionally — and of significant importance — mobile direct traffic to publishers is now greater than traffic sent by Facebook to publishers’ sites. This means consumers are now more likely to get their news by typing in a publisher URL or opening an app than by being referred through Facebook.

Mobile content discovery apps broaden

We’ve also observed content discovery habits changing, as “built-in” mobile aggregators emerge as meaningful referrers. While traffic driven by more traditional referrers like Yahoo, Twitter, and Outbrain has stayed roughly constant for the last 18 months, news aggregator apps that are built directly into the mobile phone or browser experience are now driving significant traffic to publishers. These apps have seen incredible growth:

  • Google Chrome Suggestions, a personalized news feed built into Chrome’s mobile browser, is up 20×.
  • News aggregator Flipboard is up 2× in the past year.
  • The new Google News app, which is pre-installed on Android devices, is up roughly 3× since it relaunched in May.

Built-in portal apps aren’t the only apps to watch; publisher-owned news apps are also making a comeback. According to the Digital News Report 2017 from the Reuters Institute, weekly use of news apps in the U.S. was up roughly 40 percent in 2017. And Chartbeat data shows that app users are not just consuming more content, but they are also an incredibly loyal audience — 5.7× more loyal on average than visitors who arrive from platforms like Facebook and Google.

All of which makes the August 3 Facebook incident even more interesting to observe.

The Facebook outage

Chartbeat analyzed the Facebook outage using global traffic data across a sample of more than 4,000 sites, and presented a summary of what happened at the ONA conference. Key data points show that when Facebook went down, referrals to news sites fell, as expected — but other activity more than made up for it.

  • Direct traffic to publishers’ websites increased 11 percent, while traffic to publishers’ mobile apps soared 22 percent.
  • Search referral traffic to publishers was also up 8 percent.
  • Surprisingly, there was a net total traffic increase of 2.3 percent — meaning that the number of pages consumed across the web spiked upward in this timeframe.

One of the fascinating things we noticed in the data was just how instantaneous the reaction was: When Facebook went down, it took only seconds for users to break the habit. Habitual Facebook usage is so intertwined with mobile usage, however, that it’s hard to say what would really happen in a Facebook-absent world. Would mobile consumption be the same without it?

Facebook drives a tremendous amount of traffic to publishers — but at the same time, it also competes in terms of consumer time and attention. It’s heartening to see that when Facebook is temporarily out of the picture, consumers still seek out the stories they want — which is good news for publishers.

Josh Schwartz is chief of product, engineering, and data science at Chartbeat.

Illustration by Scott Martin/Burnt Toast Creative used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 22, 2018, 10:42 a.m.
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