Over the last three weeks, Indian news publishers lost about 100 million page views to their websites and apps — and they had no idea how.
Here’s what the publishers realised when they did a deep analysis of their traffic sources: most of the fall was in Facebook-driven traffic. Facebook didn’t announce this publicly, but the world’s largest social network had actually tweaked its algorithm — the invisible rules that determine exactly what shows up in your Facebook News Feed — some time in the last 10 days of May. This itself isn’t new. Facebook routinely changes its algorithm once in a while to boost certain kinds of content (like videos, for instance). With its latest tweak, however, Facebook started giving less visibility to news content (and possibly other third-party content) on users’ Walls.
Here’s how online publishing in 2016 works: anyone who publishes content depends on search (primarily Google), and social networks (primarily Facebook and Twitter in that order) for a large chunk of their traffic. With over 1.6 billion monthly active users around the globe, Facebook alone contributes between 20-30% of the total traffic. In some cases, it is even more.
The number of Facebook users who see something you’ve posted is called Organic Audience Reach (OAR). Reduction in OAR has a direct impact of traffic and page views to publishers’ websites, which means that if your post reaches fewer Facebook users as a result of a change to Facebook’s algorithm, your traffic is going to tank.
According to a study done by media optimisation platform SocialFlow, Facebook’s latest algorithm tweak meant that news stories published to the platform were reaching 42% fewer people.
Let’s turn to India. According to leading website traffic tracker ComScore, the top 100 news websites in India clocked approximately 2 billion page views in April. Between 20-30% of these typically come from Facebook. Let’s pick an average Facebook contribution of 25%. That’s about 400 million page views. Assuming an average traffic drop of 30% from Facebook, Indian news sites lost about 90-100 million page views in the last three weeks (specifically the last 10 days of May and the first 10 days of June).
Assuming that your average news site has five ad slots (yes, our news websites are loaded with ads!), that’s a loss of about 500 million ad impressions (100 million page views multiplied by five ads per page view). At an eCPM — the metric used to calculate amount of advertising revenue made by publishers per one thousands ad impressions — of $1 (an estimation of the Indian rate), the top 100 Indian news websites collectively lost about half a million dollars in advertising revenue in the last three weeks.
And this is just the news websites I’m talking about. The overall impact on Indian web advertising as a result of Facebook’s algorithm change could be far more significant.
Facebook’s constant changes to its algorithm are a result of its efforts to balance user engagement with content and its own monetisation goals. The only reason Facebook makes money is because over a billion users globally like spending time on it almost every day of the year.
The problem is that Facebook is largely opaque about how it operates the News Feed and the tweaks it does. The sudden changes offer no explanations or directions to publishers or businesses about making sure that the visibility of their content doesn’t suddenly fall off a cliff. In comparison, Google is much more open.
Google has, over the years, regularly published updates to its search algorithm, which informs businesses and developers what factors they should pay attention to if they don’t want to be dropped from search results. It’s not precise — there are no strict dos and don’ts — but the world’s largest search engine gives clear general directions. In some of the updates to its algorithm, for instance, Google killed certain parameters that allowed some websites to game it using back links.
Google’s transparency about talking about its own algorithm updates also means that there are thousands of forums on the internet where contributors dissect the details and the impact of any changes to their own websites. A casual Google search for “facebook organic reach algorithm” throws up just half a million search results, for instance, while a search for “google search algorithm” throws up more than 26 million results.
Google also documents the changes to its algorithm far more aggressively than Facebook. The search giant last blogged about its changes earlier this month. Facebook’s latest blog post? June 2014.
Look, Facebook and Google are both (massive) businesses that have to make money for their investors. I get that. But by being more transparent than Facebook, Google tends to create more trust in the internet ecosystem and helps it grow faster.
The culture of open and easily available information has been a cornerstone of the growth of the internet economy. By keeping information about the gears that power its News Feed and determine the fates of millions of publishers hidden, Facebook could impact the growth of this economy in the long run.
Indeed, it’s a two-way street. Facebook depends on publishers for its own growth as much as the publishers depends on it for visibility and traffic. No matter how big a company is, it cannot be bigger than the ecosystem in which it operates.
Ambrish Bajaj is the Head of Product at HT Media Ltd, publisher of some of India’s leading national dailies like Hindustan Times and Mint. Views expressed here are personal.