Several news and media websites reported a severe drop in traffic to their websites recently, and they traced the issue back to Facebook.
Apparently, the social media giant updated its algorithm earlier this year, in May, which strongly affected a growing list of publishers.
While the digital news business is becoming increasingly frail, the change is even more troubling than it would be under better circumstances.
Publishing companies no longer have a choice but to rely on social media for self-promotions, and Facebook’s new changes were devastating to many of them.
Meta Ignored Requests for Comments on Algorithm Change
Publishers said that they deserved transparency from the company, but Meta failed to communicate, even failing to respond to direct requests for comments or explanations.
Still, some inside sources were willing to share certain details, such as that the shift started in February 2023. Over the months, things started escalating.
Robert Chappell, Executive Editor at the nonprofit news outlet focusing on communities of color Madison 365, stated,
There’s been a significant downward trend, and it’s an important platform for us because our audience is disproportionately on Facebook. It makes up about 25% of our traffic. You never know what’s going to change. It makes it hard to plan for the future.
However, publishers have discovered that the number of clicks coming from Facebook has been dropping for about a year now.
The drop accelerated in May of this year, according to Echobox. Echobox is a data-collecting company that collects and analyzes information from over 2,000 publishers from all over the world.
A Number of Businesses Crashed Due to Policy Changes
The share of traffic from Facebook crashed by as much as 50% in the last year for some publishers. Echobox’s CEO, Antoine Amann, said,
It’s difficult to say with certainty what the causes are, but Facebook has made no secret about its intention to deprioritize news on its platform and give greater precedence to video content, which by nature results in less clickthrough traffic.
He added that it can be very challenging for publishers to be in a position where they are at the mercy of third-party platforms like this.
Any algorithm change can severely impact their performance and revenues, and they have no control over what the platform will do next.
The turbulence in social media traffic has played a role in the recent collapses of numerous businesses in the news sector.
\Vice Media and BuzzFeed News are 2 of the largest recent examples.
Other struggling news firms, such as Insider, have also mentioned that the severed connection to Facebook played a big role in causing a decline in traffic.
Insider’s Editor in Chief, Nicholas Carlson, said that Traffic is down. Subs are down. Video views are down.
That was true two weeks ago and has been true for months, so I’m not talking about the impact of a strike. I’m talking about a changing reading and watching environment where Facebook is no longer sharing links.
Publishers Continue to Depend on Facebook
Facebook is not unaware of the major ramifications for companies that depend on it for their businesses whenever it comes up with a new major change.
The company has even manipulated publishers in the past.
For example, in 2015, it introduced a “pivot to video” when it presented false metrics to get the publishers to make and post more videos.
This, in turn, led to a media industry-wide shift, where publishers invested heavily in video content production.
However, it was a waste of money since users were simply not interested in watching any of it.
Insider EIC @nichcarlson addresses the newsroom post-strike, says “after a few years of drift,” the media company is returning to its core focus of business, economy, and tech coverage and becoming “the next-gen WSJ” pic.twitter.com/IBBmoz0lPp
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) June 15, 2023
Apart from that, some publishers have also noticed that Facebook is not only deciding whether or not users will see the news but also what kinds of news will show up in their feeds. Anything that was controversial or related to substantive policy news was suppressed, according to Chappell.
Facebook did not confirm it, but some leaked conversations did, as they revealed debates among executives regarding whether users should see more content judged as positive or negative.
For now, the digital media industry continues to depend on Facebook, and this dependence is very much one-sided.
In the past, Meta was threatening to block the news links on both Facebook and Instagram in California due to a bill that would force it and similar platforms to pay publishers for sharing news. While it didn’t block all news, it certainly did suppress it in some subtle ways.
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