An article by Lance Moses published on Digiday.com illustrates the recent steps taken by four major publishers – Rodale, Time Inc., the New York Times, and Thrilllist – to beef up their SEO presence in the wake of Facebook’s recent algorithm changes, which increasingly promote content from friends over content from publishers and favor video content over traditional text content.
“We need to make sure we have a diversified amount of traffic coming in and have all areas of referral traffic growing.”
Facebook has been gradually reducing organic reach since 2013, but the last 24 months have been especially difficult for publishes, whose finances are being pinched by lagging newsstand sales, the loss of classified ad revenue, and the rise of online ad blocking. Losing reach on Facebook has been particularly painful; as MediaPost.com reported in June, 2016,
“Overall, 139 out of the 300 biggest publishers on Facebook have seen their traffic decline year over year, including big names like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and Elite Daily, SimilarWeb reports. For example Buzzfeed’s Facebook referral traffic fell 11.5% from 227.6 million in the first quarter of 2015 to 201.3 million in the first quarter of 2016. Meanwhile Huffington Post’s Facebook referral traffic plunged 44% to 84.9 million in the first quarter, the New York Times was down 10% to 68.5 million, and Mashable fell 17% to 51.8 million.”
Analytics firm Social Flow validated these findings in a survey of 3,000 publisher-owned Facebook pages which recorded a precipitous 42% drop in traffic from the network in the past year.
Publishers are increasingly waking up to the fact that “building a castle on someone else’s land” is a poor idea, and are now beginning to take corrective action:
“We need to make sure we have a diversified amount of traffic coming in and have all areas of referral traffic growing,” said Beth Beuhler, Rodale’s Chief Operating Officer, quoted in the article. “So when Facebook changes its algorithm, while it hurts, it doesn’t cripple us because we still have a healthy amount of search traffic coming in.”
The New York Times, like Rodale, is taking steps to re-balance its recent reliance on Facebook for traffic, adding staff – including SEO coders, strategists, and analysts — to ensure that SEO principles and practices are “baked into editorial operations.” In late 2016, The Times upgraded its enormous editorial archive from PDF to flat HTML, which caused “an immediate lift in search traffic. In the Times’ view, building stronger referral traffic from search engines provides an insurance policy against any future reach reductions that Facebook might institute.
The value of a diversified content portfolio
The experience of these publishers in the past 24 months highlights an important lesson that we’ve stressed again and again on this blog, as well as in our ebooks: publishers and marketers need to pursue a content strategy that liberates them from the controls and restrictions imposed by aggregators of every kind. As we observed back in early 2015:
“…the central problem is that publishers and marketers, once they’ve found a channel that works, or is cheap relative to competing channels, all too often aggressively “double down” on this channel and stop investing in alternatives that, over time, could serve as a backstop when the primary channel dries up.”
Because any given channel that’s profitable today may be unprofitable tomorrow, it’s critical that publishers and marketers develop strategies that mitigate risk. A key part of this strategy entails strengthening their own first-party data repositories of subscribers, customers, and e-mail opt-ins.
It’s also vital that publishers continue to build and maintain great, compelling web sites that can serve as single destinations for activities on a multitude of social networks.
One operational paradigm we recommend is the “hub-and-spoke” model. The “hub” in this model equates to the publisher/marketer web site. This is where the unique intellectual property – articles, whitepapers, presentations, sales collateral, blog posts, and other “owned media” – resides.
The hub-and-spoke approach is effective for several reasons:
- Full control – Marketers and publishers can only enjoy full control over the user experience on their own properties. While the tools and analytics of social media networks have improved, they don’t always provide a complete picture. Only domain-based analytics software can provide a truly comprehensive view of site usage, conversions, and behaviour.
- Redundancy – By creating a diversified portfolio of traffic-generating sources, one can “keep the lights on” when marketing activity on a single spoke becomes unsustainable.
- SEO focus – By concentrating all your content assets on your site, you focus potential SEO gains on your own domain. Social networks (and even search engines) come and go: your domain is (or should be) like a diamond: “forever.”
Social media is not “the end game”
Marketers seeking to maximize return from a given communications channel – for example, a particular social media network, search engine, or other source, – can find themselves behind the eight-ball when that channel decides to change the rules. Avoiding this problem means remaining vigilant about algorithm changes, carefully monitoring referral traffic, and diversifying traffic sources so that the loss (or change of material terms) on any third party source exacts minimum harm to the publisher/marketer.
“…platforms like LinkedIn (and other social media sites) are about “Other People’s Audiences” (OPA). You want to be active on them because it provides an opportunity to gain exposure to new audiences and grow your visibility and reputation. But, they’re not the end game. Ultimately, you want to draw people to your site (or your App, or your mailing list). Use these platforms with that end goal in mind.”