Audiences worldwide are hungry for quality news – and they actively search for it when it matters most

There is growing concern that the channels for digitally distributing news–chief among them Facebook and Google–direct traffic and resources away from smaller, independent outlets in growing media markets. Opaque and fast-changing algorithms can devastate readership overnight, and with the staggering combined intake by Google and Facebook of one-fifth of global advertising spending last year, smaller outlets are frequently left with a meager income from digital. As Michelle Foster writes in a recent CIMA report, that combination often yields a feast of media choices but a famine of credible, independent news.

New findings from media researchers at Chartbeat, however, offer a ray of hope: during major news events, audiences worldwide are most likely to seek out quality information via search engines like Google before turning to Facebook and other social media platforms. Based on data from the analytics firm’s network of 50,000 media sites across the globe, news consumers may be far more proactive than was previously assumed.

The Bad News:

Facebook and Google together drive more than 70 percent of external traffic to publisher sites–-and claim a sizable chunk of global advertising revenue while they do it.
While audiences arrive at sites through myriad platforms, or referrers, just five refer about 75 percent of global external traffic: Google search, Facebook, Twitter, Google News, and Yahoo News. Of those, Google search and Facebook are far and away the leading platforms, driving 40 and 30 percent of traffic, respectively. And not only are they responsible for getting eyes on the page–latest estimates put Google and Facebook’s combined share of global advertising spend at roughly 20 percent. Meaning they both drive traffic and profit substantially in doing so. One estimate suggests that this year, Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) could together claim as much as half of Internet ad revenue worldwide.

When it comes to audience engagement on Facebook, when it rains, it pours… but it rarely rains.
Chartbeat’s data confirms what many have long known or suspected: while gaining attention on Facebook means much higher traffic in a short period of time, the odds of gaining that traction in the first place are increasingly slim. Specifically, “a story is less likely on average to see traffic at all from Facebook than it is to see traffic from Google.” Even those stories most shared on Facebook do not necessarily win a larger amount of “engaged time” from site visitors–perhaps not too surprising on a platform largely comprised of scrolling through busy newsfeeds.

The Good News:

Audiences worldwide are hungry for quality information when it counts.
As earlier noted, Google search outpaces Facebook referrals by roughly 10 percent. When major news events break, however, that distinction is stark. Faced with significant events, audiences first turn to search engines, proactively seeking out the latest updates. According to Chartbeat, only about 12 to 14 hours after that initial search peak does the conversation turn more toward social platforms like Facebook. This pattern is reflected in the content audiences choose from each path, engaging with “more emotional stories” on Facebook and informative ones on Google.

There are referrers other than Facebook, and they may offer more opportunities than we realize.
While media outlets and marketers increasingly rely on analytics and social traffic for audience information, outreach strategies, and measurements of success, it is vital to read those analytics closely and understand their limits. Over-reliance on one platform (i.e. Facebook) can mean time and resources spent fruitlessly on limited returns. At the same time, overlooking other possible referrers means missed opportunities.

Not always as easy to track as Facebook, those additional referrers range from Google search to what has become known as “dark social,” or peer-to-peer messaging–sharing links through email, text, and other messaging systems that are nearly impossible to track. An upcoming CIMA report will delve into the growing prevalence and implications of dark social, while data scientists at Chartbeat and elsewhere hone their techniques for making sense of often-shadowy analytics. In the meantime, audiences continue to seek out quality information when they need it most, and independent news sources are integral in providing exactly that.

Kate Musgrave is the Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance. Find her on Twitter at @kate_musgrave.

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