Are viral traffic's days numbered?

The entire Internet went crazy for a dress the other week and, true to the contagious nature of all things viral, Gawker Media caught the hysteria bug too, publishing a poll and no fewer than three explainers across its blog network. To Gawker editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs, the decision to blanket the story was a no-brainer. “We’re not allergic to traffic,” he said. “When there are things people are talking about, we’re going to cover it.”

It may seem like the Internet was awash in posts about #thedress and, for that matter, runaway llamas, as of late. But a confluence of factors, from viewability to changing Facebook algorithms to falling CPMs, are making the economics of this kind of viral strategy a bit more complicated.

Google and Facebook have changed their formulas to deemphasize junky traffic in search results and in users’ news feeds. Facebook, for its part, said it would give more weight to stories that readers spend more time with and share more. Those changes forced Yahoo to tighten up its guidelines after traffic to its Associated Content community publishing business plunged and has sought to refashion itself as a premium publisher. Similarly, Demand Media, the onetime tech darling that scaled an audience based on so-called expert posts like “How to Boil an Egg” and “How to do Laundry,” has had to change its editorial formula.

Gawker, which was once at the forefront of directly incentivizing writers based on their traffic, announced recently that it would move away from the bonus system that helped put it on the map and that going forward, bonuses would be decided subjectively by a “Politburo” consisting of Craggs and other editors. Other major publishers including Vox, BuzzFeed and Forbes are eschewing traffic-based bonuses or looking at engagement metrics that measure posts by the time and attention readers give them over mere clicks.

The end of the pageview era
Underlying all these changes is a shift in how digital media is being bought and sold. The Internet is drowning in pageviews and click-through rates have plummeted, which has led publishers to cram their sites with evermore pageviews and load them up with display ads, the vast majority of which will be ignored. Advertisers are increasingly aware that a significant portion of traffic is fake, generated by bots, and that a vast number of ads aren’t being seen by humans.

But a backlash is brewing. The industry has set a standard that says at least half of an ad must be in view for at least one second, but Unilever and its agency GroupM have gone beyond that.

There’s a heightened attention to fraudulent traffic. “Hackers will always find a new trick or loophole, but many marketers are working around that so it doesn’t work for publishers,” said John Nitti, chief investment officer at Zenith. Marketers are also increasingly using attribution models that will make it more apparent to them when traffic goes nowhere.

With no universally accepted measurement of time spent, it will be a long time for agencies ditch the click completely, but there’s growing interest in using engagement metrics in ad buying.

‘Nobody wants junk’
Horizon Media is one agency that’s been increasingly using engagement metrics to inform the buying process. Horizon started by placing ads in social games, where it could quantify an ad’s value to an advertiser based on gamers’ willingness to share a brand’s message with others. Last year, it extended that idea, saying it would buy only from publishers who can prove their ads are in view.

“The old model we’ve been working to better was to convince advertisers that extremely large impression numbers were indicative of large audience numbers,” said Maikel O’Hanlon, who oversees the social media practice at Horizon Media. “I don’t know how many people believe that anymore. There’s absolute pressure on publishers to weed that stuff out. Nobody wants junk traffic on their plan, contributing to what they’re paying.”

Some publishers are seeing an opportunity to promote quality over quantity. Those at the forefront, such as Financial Times, The Economist and Medium, are niche players who are especially vulnerable as digital ad dollars shift to the online giants including Google and Facebook. Unable to play the scale game, they’re pushing the idea that content should be valued not based on how many people saw it but how much time people spent with it. Other publishers are starting to promote such metrics as time spent on site, return visits and actions taken from content in meetings with ad buyers.

Upworthy built its editorial model around engagement at the outset. The 2-year-old viral publisher believes its data-driven approach would help it scale an audience and get that audience to share its content with others — an approach that also synched up with advertising clients’ desires. “There’s no doubt, talking to marketers, there’s a very strong desire to understand engagement on a deeper level,” said Josh Luger, director of revenue for Upworthy.

“Quality publishers are saying, ‘I just can’t win at this volume game, or, is this really what I want to be doing?’” said Joe Marchese, an outspoken critic of the traditional display advertising model and the founder of TrueX, an ad tech company with a product that lets consumers watch an ad in exchange for the ability to say, watch a video or listen to music without ad interruptions. TrueX was bought by 21st Century Fox in December for a reported $200 million.

Quality is in the eye of the beholder, of course. A shift to engagement metrics doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s going to start doing Economist-style content. Stories that have made Gawker’s Politburo list include deeply reported fare like “The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery” but also “How To Clean Up Every Mess Depicted In ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘” and “The 10 Best Student-Professor Sex Stories, Courtesy of Our Own Readers.” But it does mean publishers will have to work harder for more than five seconds of readers’ attention.

The battle for attention
Neetzan Zimmerman, who was employed by Gawker to come up with viral hits, doesn’t see pandering posts going away, considering the role platforms and advertisers play. (Facebook drives about one-fourth of publishers’ referral traffic.) Case in point: according to NewsWhip, six of the 10 most-shared sites on Facebook in January were from traditional news outlets, but the most-shared site by an overwhelming margin was quiz- and list-mill PlayBuzz, which racked up more than 10 million shares.

“BuzzFeed’s traffic is going to work because the platforms that sustain it are still so big,” said Zimmerman, now at The Hill. “It seems unrealistic to think those types of evergreen posts will ever fall out of favor with the general public, and advertisers will go where the audience comes. When you go down the route of cute animals, it’s probably the safest place you can play.”

Still, other observers believe that over time, the prevailing ad trends will favor articles and videos that hold people’s attention for more than a few seconds.

Longer-form content leads to more time on page and more engagement with articles, and more engagement with articles leads to higher viewability scores, said Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of viewability vendor Moat. “I do think viewability will cause a shift away from the five-second content and toward the longer, engagement content, sometimes serious, sometimes not,” he said. “Because advertisers want to know they have a chance to get somebody’s attention.”

Legacy news organizations from NPR to National Geographic have made huge gains on Facebook, likely because of Facebook’s formula changes but also because the publishers have gotten sharper about getting the platforms to promote their articles.

At Gawker, the most visible sign that the thinking has changed is that the monitors displaying individual writers’ traffic are now gone. This shift is based on the premise that quality and traffic can go hand in hand, Craggs said. “We still care very much about the growth of the site,” he said. “It’s the horseshit we’re passing along as if it were true. That’s the kind of stuff we want to get away from. The viral beat created a lot of growth but also took us away from stuff that we do best.”