Publishers reckon with declining Facebook referral traffic as the platform pulls away from news

Illustration of a fire hydrant spraying water with the Facebook logo on the side.

Publishers are still feeling the effects of a change Facebook made in May that caused a steep decline in referral traffic to publishers’ sites.

In conversations with Digiday, four publishing executives — who all requested to remain anonymous in order to preserve their relationships with Meta — referred to a “bug” that was unintentionally introduced when Meta made a change to Facebook’s algorithm in May. The execs told Digiday they were informed by Meta that the platform was aware of the issue and that publishers could expect referral traffic to return to normal in a few months’ time. 

But nearly four months later, publishers aren’t sure when, or if, that traffic will come back. 

“We were notified at the end of June that the rollout of a new page experience within Facebook caused a bug which prevented link posts from being properly served by the algorithm to a page’s audience,” one publishing exec told Digiday. “It’s our understanding that a fix to the bug is currently being worked on, but we do not have visibility into the status or its priority.”

None of the publishing executives Digiday interviewed for this story had heard an update from Meta on when they can expect referral traffic to bounce back. Meta declined to comment. 

This is not a new problem. Publishers have been dealing with social platform algorithm changes for years, and referral traffic from platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) have been on a downward trend, as illustrated by this graph shared with Digiday by Similarweb, a data analytics company that monitors web traffic:

Provided by Similarweb

Facebook has been cutting back on its investment in publishers since last year. Publishing execs told Digiday that they speculate the declining referral traffic is a result of Facebook de-prioritizing features that send users off their platform to publishers’ sites. For example, around the time of the alleged bug, Facebook sunsetted Instant Articles, a feature that loaded publishers’ news articles quickly on the Facebook app. And just this week, Axios reported that Facebook’s head of news partnerships Campbell Brown is leaving the company. 

A downward trend

From August 2022 to August 2023, global Facebook referral traffic to the top 30 or so news sites was down 62%, according to Similarweb data shared with Digiday.

Some of the largest year-over-year declines in Facebook referral traffic to publishers’ sites in August 2023 include:

  • The Sun: 84% decline
  • Business Insider: 80% decline
  • The Guardian: 79% decline
  • The Daily Mail: 77% decline
  • The Mirror: 75% decline
  • BuzzFeed: 72% decline
  • The New York Times: 66% decline
  • CNN: 66% decline
  • Yahoo News: 66% decline

Facebook referral traffic has decreased by 52% from September 2022 to September 2023, according to social media management company Echobox, which has a database of over 2,000 publishers.

The first publishing exec told Digiday that in the second week of June, they saw a 91% decline in the average weekly Facebook referral traffic to their sites from the previous week. Since then, they said the average weekly Facebook referral traffic in September is down about 80%, compared to the average prior to the algorithm change in May.

A second publishing exec said Facebook referral traffic “fell off a cliff” in June. Their publication saw a 56% decline in Facebook referral traffic from May to June this year. Traffic from Facebook represented 79% of total social referral traffic to their site in 2020, they said. That’s now down to 59% this year. August was the “second worst” month of referrals from Facebook this year, the second publishing exec said. “It sucks,” they added.

However, a third publishing exec was more optimistic. While they did see Facebook referral traffic decline to their site earlier this year, they said they “never felt like we were careening off a cliff.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen a significant decrease in our overall Facebook traffic year over year. There’s always fluctuations… I don’t know if I can quantify how much traffic we lost,” they said. “At that same time we were seeing our Instant Article traffic – which used to be the majority of our Facebook traffic – go away, and then everything flipped to just referral traffic. So it’s hard for me to attribute our loss in traffic to this bug.”

What can publishers do now?

All of the publishing execs told Digiday that Facebook is still the social platform driving the most traffic to their sites. Despite all the changes to the platform, they’re not giving up yet.

The first publishing exec referred to the 80% decline in average weekly referral traffic from Facebook as an improvement from the 91% decline they were seeing in June, and they said they had achieved this “by doubling our content output on Facebook, as well as ensuring a higher mix of non-link based content such as images and videos.”

The first publishing exec added that they were concerned that the algorithm change could have lasting effects on their Facebook engagement. “Our most loyal followers are no longer being served our content — and haven’t been for over three months — so it’s hard to predict how they will re-engage when the algorithm begins prioritizing our content again,” they said.

The third publishing exec said they are “doing what Meta is asking” because Facebook is still the top driver of social traffic to their site.

“They want native video, so we’re leaning more into that. They want graphics, photos… things that keep people engaged and active on Facebook [vs. driving them off the platform]. We’ve always been doing that, but I would say we make more of it now,” the third exec said.

But the second publishing exec stressed that it’s more important now than ever to have a diversified social media content strategy. 

“We can’t really twiddle our thumbs and hope things go back to the pre-pandemic [time] of Facebook being a giant behemoth of referral,” the second exec said. “[We’re looking at] diverting more assets and bandwidth to deal with platforms that aren’t X or Facebook, or honestly even under the Meta umbrella,” they added.

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