Online publishers need to be aware that Facebook is planning to make them an offer they simply cannot refuse. It seems that Google has found itself some serious competition in terms of referring traffic. And right now, the battle is on to see who will end up having more power.
Earlier this month, chief product officer Chris Cox spoke at a Re/code news conference and dropped a bombshell. He stated that Facebook intends to go beyond pointing users to a website. Instead, they want to actually start hosting content. The big question is whether or not publishers believe this is something that will benefit them. On the other hand, it would be very difficult for publishers to resist this offer. After all, many people right now find the news because something is listed in their feed, meaning there is a huge audience.
Shareaholic has stated that by the end of 2014, social media traffic directed a huge amount of traffic, far more so than it did the previous year.
The shift from search to social isn’t just in progress: it’s already here. Collectively, the top 8 social networks drove 31.24% of overall traffic to sites in December 2014, up from 22.71% the same time last year.
Google is paying attention to these figures. Their referrals accounted for 37.5% of all traffic in 2013. By 2014, however, the collective figure for all of the different search engines was less than 30%.
Mobile devices are playing a big part in this. Smartphones can use search engines, but this is often slow and cumbersome. Facebook, by contrast, has a great news feed that allows people to find the information they are looking for. Twitter offers similar facilities, although it still only generates around 1% of referrals.
Naturally, Google is paying attention. They pointed out that they never truly dominated the internet anyway. Indeed, the European head for Google, Matt Brittin, had made a statement in the Financial Times not long ago, although this was also to placate the regulators in Brussels. The last time there has been any attempt to change the face of the internet was when Steve Ballmer, the previous CEO for Microsoft, stated that they were the underdog to Google and Apple.
Of course, for the media to actually hand their content over to Facebook would take a lot. Digital media models focus on engaging users for long periods. They want to collect pieces of data to anticipate how visitors will behave and deliver something based on that. Facebook may not be able to deliver on this. On the other hand, however, it will be incredibly difficult to resist the Facebook offer. Cox has stated that it is common for companies within the media to be too slow to serve up their content. Additionally, they often don’t present it in such a way that people will actually see it, or pay attention to it. Facebook is likely to be in much better control of this, which would greatly benefit the digital media overall.
At the same time, however, some are suggesting that Facebook is actually making some kind of veiled threat. If they believe that key to the reading pleasure of the user is fast access to content, then they will probably also change the current algorithm that decides what elements we do and don’t see in a news feed. This means that the articles that are actually hosted on Facebook are likely to get a lot of preference. In other words: join up or you won’t get seen. In reality, if they are able to get a few of the media companies on board with their new hosting system, other agencies will simply have to do the same. If they don’t, the algorithm will relegate their content, and people won’t see it. And, considering the figures of referrals from social media, digital media simply cannot rely on Google or other search engines alone anymore.
Naturally, Facebook claims that it is doing the right thing and helping the overall industry. They believe this is a proposal that others simply cannot refuse, not because of the veiled threat, but because it is such a great idea. Indeed, they believe it to be a sign of goodwill that they are willing to push so much traffic to the various media companies at all. Of course, they will have to set a few rules, and if a media company chooses not to uphold those rules, then Facebook is well within its rights to adapt the algorithm so users don’t see these news links anymore. After all, Facebook users seem to have a strong preference for funny cat videos and baby pictures, after all.
Indeed, Facebook has received quite a bit of support for their proposed efforts.
Philippe von Borries, founder of the fast-growing women’s content site Refinery29, thinks so. Specifically, he believes the era of referral traffic may be over for publishers. “What we are seeing is the end of the Web-centric, desktop-centric era and the dawn of the mobile and social age,” he said. And that means that social media is no longer just about link out to bring people back to a publisher-owned site.
It seems that Refinery29 is not alone in this belief. Indeed, the data show that Facebook users want to be able to find out what is going on in the world by sticking to their social network. They don’t want to leave Facebook to search for things that interest them, they want to have them presented to them there and then. This means that the way social media presents links to outside sources is hugely important in terms of driving traffic and referrals.
This has been reiterated several times by Mark Thompson New York Times’ CEO.
For the first time the New York Times editors are scanning the rest of the internet and coming up with the most interesting developing stories around the clock. The idea is to give people a sense throughout the day of what they need to know to feel fully briefed on what’s going on in the world.
Indeed, the New York Times is keen to engage with new types of digital platforms. At the same time, the NYT and others like them have a big concern. Is Facebook just the next big bully, or are they offering something good?