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Facebook kills off news: Publishers panic, try to remember how to do SEO

By now you’ve no doubt heard the news that’s been shaking up the internet since late last week.

But in case you just came back online after a week-long internet blackout, here’s what’s happening: on Thursday 11th January, Facebook announced a major change to the way posts are ranked in News Feed.

In order to promote more “meaningful” interaction with friends and family, Facebook said that it would “prioritize posts from friends and family over public content … including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses”.

In general, brands have not tended to rely on Facebook for traffic since it dramatically reduced the organic reach of branded content a little over three years ago, forcing brands to pay for reach or go elsewhere for traffic. However, publishers have long been the exception to that rule, with Facebook acting as a huge – and vital – source of referral traffic to publishers’ websites.

This has led many publishers to plan their strategy and output directly around Facebook (see: the much-derided media “pivot to video”, which was driven in large part by Facebook). But Facebook’s announcement of Thursday has put paid to all of that – or at least, put a big dent in the potential traffic that publishers can earn from its platform.

Deprived of referral traffic from Facebook, will publishers be turning en masse back to SEO to restore their fortunes? Let’s look at some of the broader industry shifts underpinning this change, and what it means for the importance of search for publishers.

Trading places: Google is back on top for referral traffic

The truth is that Facebook’s referral traffic to publishers has been in decline for some time now. According to data from digital analytics company Parse.ly, the percentage of external traffic that Facebook provides to publishers decreased from 40% to 26% between January 2017 and January 2018, while Google’s rose from 34% to 44% over the same period.

This means that in a direct reversal of 2015, when Facebook rocked the industry by overtaking Google as a source of referral traffic for publishers, Google is now back in the number one spot. And this all happened before Facebook’s News Feed announcement even took place.

Publishers have also been seeing more traffic from Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) than Facebook equivalent Instant Articles, another situation that reversed itself over the last year. According to Parse.ly, publisher traffic from AMP increased from 4.72% in January 2017 to 11.78% in November 2017, while Instant Articles declined from 10.31% of publisher traffic in January down to 8.54% in November.

When Facebook overtook Google for referral traffic back in 2015, this seemed to herald the dawn – or perhaps the zenith – of a new age of social sharing and publishing, in which social media was the new search.

At a Content Marketing Association Digital Breakfast in June 2016, veteran digital journalist Adam Tinworth remarked that social networks had taken over the search engine’s traditional role of “finding something to read” online. As a result, Google and other search engines moved into more of an “answer engine” role, moving away from search towards a single, definitive answer to users’ queries.

So with Google back on top for referral traffic, are we seeing a return to the status quo?

The Google-Facebook merry-go-round

In fact, Google and Facebook’s continual back-and-forth is the status quo. They have been chasing each other around in circles for years now, each taking it in turns to try their hand at the other’s specialist area.

Google experimented with social networking; Facebook became the go-to place to find content. Both launched lightning-fast takes on the mobile web – Accelerated Mobile Pages and Instant Articles – in 2015 with a global roll-out in 2016. Now, Facebook is returning to its “roots” of showing you what your family and friends are up to, while the latest updates to Google’s smart assistant indicate that Google is moving back into surfacing content.

Google and Facebook: Destined to chase each other in circles for eternity
(Image by monstreh, available via CC0)

In other words, this is just the most recent step in a dance that has been going on for more than 10 years. Facebook might have ceded some ground to Google in the realm of referral traffic to publishers, partly in a bid to rid itself of the fake news scandal that has dogged it since mid to late 2016.

However, the two continue to vie for dominance in countless other areas, such as artificial intelligence, smart home hubs, digital assistants, and advertising. Facebook continues to drive its investment in online video, encroaching on Google-owned YouTube’s territory, while Google recently announced a new foray into social publishing with Google Stamp.

At the height of the fake news controversy, Google and Facebook’s names frequently appeared side-by-side, with both companies accused of peddling false information to their users and perpetrating the “filter bubble” that allows fake news to thrive.

As a result, some have speculated that Google might now follow in Facebook’s footsteps and take steps to distance itself from publishers.

However, Google is already taking action – or at least appearing to take action – against fake news on its search engine by implementing ‘fact-checking’ labels, partnering with the International Fact-Checking Network to combat misinformation, and purging questionable overseas websites that mask their country of origin from Google News.

Unless there is another significant wave of backlash over fake news to force Google’s hand, it seems likely that Google will take the “win” over Facebook and avoid jeopardizing its relationship with publishers – particularly given its recent moves to become more publisher-friendly by supporting paywalled content.

Meanwhile, publishers need to work out how to reconfigure their online strategy with Facebook much less in the picture. Will we be seeing a newfound reliance on SEO and search marketing?

Publishers: time to learn from SEO

Publishers are about to find themselves in the very same position that brand marketers found themselves at the end of 2014, when Facebook announced that it was killing off organic reach for brand Pages. Just like publisher referral traffic now, brand Page reach had been in steady decline for some time, and the Facebook announcement only confirmed what many already suspected was coming.

At the time, brands were forced to abandon a marketing model that relied on free promotion from Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of Likes, and instead pay for advertising or go elsewhere for their traffic. Sound familiar?

The situation with publishers is therefore nothing new, but is still a huge blow for media organizations who have developed a “social-first” strategy over the years and rely on Facebook as a primary source of traffic.

Following the news that Google had overtaken Facebook as a source of referral traffic, Adam Tinworth blogged: “Business models dependent on Facebook growth are dead in the water, unless you can afford to buy that growth.

“Publishers will need a renewed focus on SEO — especially those that have been social-first.”

Writing for The Drum, founder and managing director of 93digital, Alex Price, observed that Facebook was following Google in “placing its long-term bet on quality [content]”, singling out Facebook-driven publications like 9GAG, Unilad and The Lad Bible as most likely to suffer from the change.

“If I were them, I would be thinking hard about the teams of people I employ to churn out social media content and how sustainable that now is.”

He added that publishers would need to focus on retention and repeat visits to drive long-term value, and optimize the experience of their website, particularly on mobile, in order to build a sustainable source of revenue in the post-Facebook age.

Publish quality content, increase engagement, optimize for mobile… if you’re in SEO, this list will be starting to sound very familiar. It’s a mantra that the search industry has been repeating for years.

High-quality publishers are likely doing most of these things already, so their task will be to ramp up those efforts while diversifying their sources of traffic beyond Facebook. This will stand them in good stead on the search engine results page and beyond.

For lower-quality social publishers, things might not be so easy. After all, these publications evolved specifically to cater to a social sharing environment, which will soon no longer exist.

Much like the brand Pages of yore with hugely inflated Like counts, publishers will need to figure out how to deliver a message of real value to consumers, or risk disappearing altogether.

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