Referral traffic from X continues to decline sharply for publishers

The referral traffic coming from links shared to X (née Twitter) to publishers’ websites has declined sharply in the past year.

Web publishing tech provider Automattic analyzed a random set of 25 large and small publishers and found that traffic from X fell on average by 24% from the first half of 2022 to the first half of 2023, according to Todd Blackmon, who oversees Automattic’s global marketing agency partnerships. That’s a significant drop from the 13% decline Digiday reported in January.

X throttling causes NYT traffic dip

This comes amid a report from The Washington Post last week that X was found to be slowing the page load speed of links to news organizations like The New York Times and Reuters, as well as other platforms like Substack. Publishers put a lot of resources into making sure their websites open as fast as possible, as people tend to abandon a website if it takes more than a few seconds to load.

A person familiar with the Times’ operations – who requested anonymity in order to speak freely – told Digiday the news organization had seen a drop in referral traffic from X since the delays began on August 4. The person declined to share how much traffic dipped or if referral traffic from X had returned to normal. After the Post’s story was published, the Times noted that the traffic throttling stopped, they said.

The Times had not received any communication or explanation from X regarding its decision to throttle traffic to their site, they added. The Times is not orchestrating any sort of retaliatory actions or measures as a result of these moves, the person said.

“We’re not sunsetting our accounts or anything like that. As long as there are subscribers and readers of our journalism, we meet them where they are. And that’s true of all platforms, this being one of them,” they said.

The story caused quite the stir among publishing executives.

A Times spokesperson told Digiday: “While we don’t know the rationale behind the application of this time delay, we would be concerned by targeted pressure applied to any news organization for unclear reasons.  The mission of The New York Times is to report the news impartially without fear or favor, and we’ll continue to do so, undeterred by any attempts to hinder this.”

Chris Moran, who was promoted a few weeks ago to head of innovation at The Guardian U.S., said The Guardian did not appear to be affected by the throttling. But he expressed concern regarding the move by X. 

“Behaving in this way, especially singling out specific organizations, is something that should not happen on a responsible, well-run platform,” Moran told Digiday. “However, while [X] has always been popular with journalists, the referral has never been particularly significant, and throttling in this way probably didn’t affect these sites’ traffic in any meaningful way.”

Back in January, publishers told Digiday a similar story: referral traffic from X represented a small percentage of their overall referral traffic.

A head of audience development at a large lifestyle publisher told Digiday this week that they saw referral traffic from X dip by 72% year over year – but traffic from the platform only accounted for about 2% of the company’s organic traffic this year (down from 4% in 2022).

But that isn’t the case for The New York Times, where the person familiar with the company’s operations said referral traffic from X was not “small or marginal.” They declined to comment further.

Despite the traffic referral dip, the lifestyle publisher’s head of audience development said they are also not changing their X strategy. “It is currently very low lift to publish content of all types to X, so we will continue to do so while the platform changes,” they said.

Publishers’ X referral traffic continues to fall YOY

Whether or not publishers are relying on X for some traffic, the fact is a number of media companies are seeing referral traffic from the platform decline compared to last year.

Of Automattic’s data set, 75% saw traffic from X fall. Blackmon noted that the range of that traffic decline for publishers was from 1% to upwards of 60%. He declined to share which publishers were in the data set. [Editor’s note: In 2021, Automattic acquired, a contracted vendor with Digiday Media].

According to an analysis by Similarweb, a data analytics company that monitors web traffic, global organic traffic from X fell for over 10 large publishers from July 2022 to July 2023:

  • BBC was down 20%
  • BuzzFeed was down 70%
  • CNN was down 41%
  • Fox News was down 39%
  • The Guardian was down 29%
  • NBC News was down 38%
  • The New York Times was down 35%
  • Reuters was down 67%
  • The Wall Street Journal was down 42%
  • The Washington Post was down 48%

A spokesperson at the LA Times said traffic coming from X to their site was 53% lower in the first half of 2023 compared to the first half of 2022, averaging just under 900,000 visits a month.

“Our social strategy is currently more focused on building engagement on TikTok, Threads, Instagram and Reddit and boosting traffic from search and our [owned and operated] tools like the website, app and newsletters,” the spokesperson said. “We’re still using X to share news, but with a more targeted approach. We find it to be useful for certain news topics, especially sports and breaking news.”

There could be a number of reasons for the large decrease in traffic coming from X, ranging from publishers decreasing their ad spend or people using X less and tweeting fewer links to news articles, according to Blackmon. In January, publishers told Digiday one reason for the decline in X referral traffic was the removal of Twitter Moments in December 2022. A slower news cycle and shifting social consumption habits could also be to blame.

In March, heads of audience development and social at Bustle Digital Group, Vice Media Group and The Washington Post told Digiday that the influx of social media platforms and video formats have forced publishers to weigh building an audience that stays on the platform or push them to their owned-and-operated properties.

It’s also impossible to ignore the whiplash-inducing changes to X’s platform since Elon Musk acquired the company for $44 billion last fall that could also be impacting usage and referral traffic.

Elon Musk’s rebranding of the platform in July on Apple’s App Store led to its average ranking on the “Top Downloaded” chart fall from No. 35 to No. 54 from July 27 to August 15, according to an analysis from media strategist Eric Seufert reported by Mashable.

However, Musk tweeted a graph on July 28 claiming that X had over 541.5 million monthly users in July, a “new high.” Musk posted in November that X had 259.4 million daily active users, Reuters reported.

More in Media

Immediate deepens CMP strategy, slashes ad tech partnerships for sharper data governance

Consent management platforms at Immediate aren’t just about ticking boxes for data laws.

Teads’ M&A rumors are firming up with a deal to merge with Outbrain

The latest installment of ad tech M&A activity is leaving some industry folks surprised.