News aggregators aren’t growing like they used to, but publishers still see their value

The header image shows a hand holding a phone with the word "news" on the screen.

Three years ago, publisher analytics firm Chartbeat saw news aggregators becoming the fastest growing traffic referral source. But with the share of traffic from aggregators dipping, that’s not so much the case anymore.

“Everything is down,” said Jill Nicholson, Chartbeat’s CMO. “By and large, people are just not reading as much as they were during 2020.”

Traffic driven by news aggregators — as a percent of total traffic referred by social, search and links — has gone down from from 18-20% in 2020 to about 14% in 2022, according to Chartbeat data, which analyzed aggregators including Apple News, Google News, SmartNews, Yahoo News, News360, Newsbreak, Flipboard, Upday, MSN, Feedly, NewsNow, Newzit, Drudge Report, Press Explorer, Inoreader, Ground News and Pocket. 

But compared to 2021, news aggregators’ share of referral traffic has been relatively flat, Nicholson said. “The shrinkage as a proportion probably just has more to do with the outsized growth of search than anything else,” she said. As a percent of traffic, search grew by three percentage points between January 2021 and September 2022.

While not as big of a traffic driver as search and not growing as it has in the past, news aggregators as a referral source are arguably quite steady — and still valuable — for some publishers. This is the case at Trusted Media Brands: “Over the years, it really has been pretty steady in terms of how much traffic they drive in any given month,” said Vince Errico, president of digital at TMB. 

The aggregators driving the most traffic are Apple News, which generally accounts for 35-40% of the traffic share, according to Chartbeat, followed by Google News at roughly 12-14% and SmartNews at 2-3.5%. Other aggregators account for less than 1%. (The data is based on Chartbeat customers who allow the measurement firm to aggregate and anonymize their data for research purposes, a Chartbeat spokesperson said). From November 2021 to September 2022, SmartNews’ share of traffic increased from about 2.4% to around 3.2%, the spokesperson added.

“Aggregators are a great way to diversify your traffic sources,” Nicholson said. While traffic referral sources are dominated by search, “if you’re getting a non-trivial amount of traffic from the aggregators, it can help you — and because it is a little bit more steady, at least as a whole, it can just be a great way to supplement that traffic in case you do have some struggles on one of the platforms or there are changes that are out of your control,” she added.

Despite the stagnation, publishers are noticing some interesting trends in the traffic that aggregators are driving to their sites:

  • An executive at a large digital women’s publisher who asked to remain anonymous said some of the smaller aggregators have had traffic “taper off significantly.” The aggregators that encourage readers to stay within their apps rather than link out have had traffic drop by about 30% year over year. But Apple News — which does encourage readers to remain in its app — has “consistently stayed strong” and is “continuing to drive significant traffic,” said the executive.
  • Another media executive who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity said they are seeing their local news content getting a lot of attention from news aggregators. But traffic from aggregators coming to its flagship political news site has dropped off, the news publisher exec said.
  • Errico was seeing similar trends to the second media executive, who said local stories and seasonal content, such as the most popular pie recipes in every state, were receiving more traffic from aggregators this year.

The four executives Digiday spoke with for this story weren’t sure if these shifts were due to changes in audience consumption behavior since last year or because of something the aggregators were changing on the backend, such as their algorithms.

Measuring the value of audiences coming from aggregators

But how valuable are these audiences, considering they are consuming content via a third-party source?

At TMB, it varies by aggregator. For instance, the audience coming from Microsoft’s MSN is particularly valuable, Errico said, with “equally high engagement” in terms of time spent on site and number of pages consumed, when compared to other sources.

Apple News in particular can also be a “branding vehicle” because content appears on the app next to other reliable news sources, said the news executive. “You hope that you suck in some, and we are working them down the [marketing] funnel,” they said.

Nicholson from Chartbeat agreed: “One of the things these aggregators actually do for some sites is awareness. You don’t need Apple News to tell you what The New York Times is, but usually I am seeing smaller metro newspapers surfacing on these aggregators too … it might be a good way to start me on my loyalty journey,” she said.

In terms of how to monetize an audience coming from a traffic referral source, aggregators have a number of different revenue share models, from minimum guarantees with a flat fee to a cut of ad revenue based on content consumption. Apple News, for example, lets publishers sell their own ads on their content on the app and, for any inventory that isn’t sold, NBCUniversal (as the ad reseller for Apple News) can backfill that inventory and give the publishers a cut. 

While the three media executives declined to share how much money they make from the aggregators, they expressed the channel represents incremental revenue. But due to aggregators being “such an easy integration, there’s no reason we wouldn’t do it,” said the women’s publisher executive.

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