In a small but welcome change, Google News referrals have perked up for publishers

Back in February, when Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, said Google is “doubling down” on news, the evidence had already begun appearing on publishers’ analytics dashboards.

Google News’ share of overall referral traffic to publishers has grown 50 percent since January 2017 and now represents 1.5 percent of that referral traffic, with an especially sharp increase in the last three months, according to Parsely data.

“Consumers have realized that relying on accidental discovery through the Facebook news feed isn’t enough when it comes to learning about the world around them,” said Andrew Montalenti, Parsely’s CTO.

The increase on Google News hasn’t touched every publisher. For example, CNN, a top beneficiary of Google News, according to News Dashboard, hasn’t detected much change in the referral traffic it gets from there. But a variety of publishers have seen increases. CNBC said that during January and February, it had its best two months ever of referral traffic from Google News, an increase of 75 percent over its fourth-quarter average; Inc. said referral traffic from Google News has picked up “noticeably” during the past three months. The sites wouldn’t provide raw traffic numbers.

Google did not respond to a request for comment before press time, but the uptick in share comes as the tech giant is making changes to increase the referral traffic it drives to publishers from non-search products including Google News, Google Play Newsstand and Google Now. Referral traffic from those products nearly doubled from January 2017 to January 2018, according to Parsely.

“The thing that seems to be the real catalyst [for being added to Google News] is potential virality,” said Kurt Tietjen, the founder of search consultancy High Peak Media. “These were things you’d likely see getting traction on Twitter or getting traction on Facebook.”

Publishers that have detected this growth have noticed a similar pattern: Google will insert a news publisher’s story into its Top Stories widget, a kind of carousel that appears at the top of its search results. If that story attracts a lot of reader clicks, Google News would then add the story to its clusters on that specific topic.

Jim Robinson, CEO of search engine optimization consultancy ClickSeed, said the change in referral traffic from news could be a sign that Google News is now taking into account factors like click-through rate on Google search.

The growth in these referrals appears to be separate from the growth powered by Accelerated Mobile Pages, the fast-loading mobile page format whose influence Google has been trying to expand. CNBC, for example, has not changed the amount of news content it publishes using AMP over the past year; Inc. doesn’t use AMP at all, though it plans to start, said Allison Fass, the editorial director for Inc.’s site.

Dan Petty, the digital director of audience development at Digital First Media, which owns the Denver Post among other news outlets, said he has seen noticeable growth in Google News referral traffic on the Denver Post’s site, though that site does not have AMP enabled.

Petty speculated that a busy news cycle was a contributor. “We’re seeing increases in Google news traffic, but we’re also seeing increase in Google traffic, period,” Petty said.

For years, Google News has been a steady but unspectacular source of traffic for some publishers. It reliably ranks among the top 10 referral traffic sources for publishers, even though it only accounts for around 1 percent of global referral traffic, according to Parsely.

Yet in the past three months, Google News’ share of global referral traffic has risen sharply, Parsely data shows.

Still, until more data rolls in, publishers may be reluctant to make any meaningful changes to their distribution strategies.

“I always tell my clients to be careful,” Tietjen said. “The Google gods giveth, and the Google gods taketh away.”

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