In Quest to Replace Facebook Traffic, Publishers Need to Get Back to SEO
If Facebook really turns out to be a busted flush for publishers, where’s the traffic going to come from in the future? Should everyone pivot to Pinterest? Leap to LinkedIn? Chassé over to Snapchat?
How you decide to move your platform strategy forward is your business, but getting serious again about SEO is critical.
There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the implications of Facebook’s algorithmic kiss-off to news and magazine publishers. On the surface of it, the decision to downgrade publisher content on the platform seemed to come as a complete shock. But look back a couple of months and the signs that the Facebook traffic train was slowing down were all too real.
The 12-month Referrer Dashboard published by web analytics and optimization business Parse.ly shows a green Facebook line dipping down and away from a steady blue Google line. This month, Google Search delivered 44% of all external referral traffic to Parse.ly’s customers, who include Conde Nast, HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal. Facebook sent 25%. According to Parse.ly’s data, Google has been sending people more traffic that Facebook since June or July last year, long before Facebook admitted to shifting the goalposts.
Engagement on Facebook posts linking back to publisher sites has been dropping even longer. Social media monitoring service Newswhip highlighted a drop in engagements between 50% and 60% for the top 10 publishers on Facebook stretching back to July 2015.
Dropping Social Dependency
No one should write off Facebook as a traffic source. “It remains the world‘s most powerful distributor of that most precious of resources called attention,” wrote Conde Nast’s Wolfgang Blau in response to the social network’s switch back to friends-and-family content.
But with sites like LittleThings crashing out after losing 75% of its organic reach to algorithm changes, dependency is no longer an option. And with the next nearest social referrer — Twitter — accounting for just 2.3% of referral traffic, search is firmly back on the table.
And these days search is Google. (Bing falls a full point below Twitter on Parse.ly’s referrer dashboard.) Although social traffic overtook search in 2015, Google has held a fairly steady 35% share of referrals for the last couple of years. And when Facebook traffic dropped last year, Google referrals increased 17%.
Google’s AMP platform accounts for the greatest part of search referrals. Introduced in October 2015 — and like Facebook’s Instant Articles, launched about six months earlier — the AMP platform was designed to speed content delivery on mobile. Unlike Instant Articles, AMP referrals have grown steadily since launch. In a period though 2017 when traffic from Instant Articles remained flat, AMP traffic increased almost 90%.
Either way, adopting AMP formatting has been a positive move for publishers. At its February developer conference, Google reported 31 million websites are using AMP, an increase of 25% since October 2017.
According to Chartbeat, in the first week of February Google sent 466 million more pageviews to publishers — nearly 40% more — than it did in January 2017. Those pageviews came predominantly from mobile and AMP. Facebook sent 200 million fewer over the same period.
If you don’t have your content formatted for AMP, Adam Sherk offers advice in a Publishing Executive webinar and suggests visiting the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project website for step-by-step guidance on how to build an AMP HTML page and stay informed on the latest AMP updates.
Speaking before Facebook’s anti-publisher pivot, Sherk described AMP’s mobile optimization as a must-have. He said it requires an investment, but is worth it when the alternative is to not have your content discovered at all.
Social for Speed, Search for Specifics
Social traffic will continue to be relevant to publishers, especially where speed of discovery is important. It will provide both reach and targeted distribution as communities of interest inform each other through social sharing.
While search has always mattered, it slipped a little on most publisher priority lists. As Rebecca Sentance, deputy editor of Search Engine Watch puts it, publishers are now desperately trying to remember how to do SEO.
The good news there is that most publishers should already be doing what they need to. “Publish quality content, increase engagement, optimize for mobile… It’s a mantra that the search industry has been repeating for years,” writes Sentence.
But it’s important for publishers to move beyond old-school keyword obsessions and start to pay attention to how their audiences uses search. Vogue.com’s associate director of audience development Abby Sjober told Publishing Executive that readers seek to answer very specific questions with search and publishers need to think hard about how they frame their content.
Unfortunately, the secrets of success in Google search are no less secret or any less likely to shift over time than Facebook’s. Changes to algorithms, rules for search result rankings and what appears in results can dent your traffic the same way Facebook’s changes destroyed LittleThings. According Edelman’s 2017 Digital Trends Report , over the last five years, Google has had nearly 50 confirmed algorithm updates.
7 Ways to Re-energize Your SEO Strategy
This latest switch between search and social may turn out to be nothing more than a temporary turn away from social. Two years from now, maybe Facebook or some other social platform could come to dominate referral traffic again. For the time being, publishers should be re-energizing their SEO teams to figure out exactly what Google is looking for and optimizing content management processes to deliver.
- Focus on Audience Utility: First off, don’t try to keep Google happy. Fifty algorithm changes in five years means you’ll be perpetually chasing your tail. Instead focus on your audience. The search giant’s objective is to make their search technology more human, so rather than trying to game the system, inform and engage the real people that make up your audience and Google will catch up.
- Structure Content for SEO: Create quality content and structure it well for SEO. It may seem obvious, but it wasn’t that long ago that dubious black-hat backlinking tactics and keyword stuffing paid dividends on Google. Those days are long gone and now content needs to be optimized for quality metrics like relevancy and readability, and organized in pages that make sense to Google when it comes to indexing.
- Continuously Develop Keyword List: Research the keywords your audience is likely to use to find your content, whether that’s celebrity names or industry terms. Create a long internal list of your keyword sweet spots and make sure your content creating teams are using them. And remember that keywords aren’t a onetime deal; keep refining your choices against your best performing content and pay attention to current versus long-tail trends.
- Beef Up on SEO Know-How: If you let go of your internal SEO expert, hire them back, or engage an SEO consultant and get them to train your staff up. Compared with search, social media is a cakewalk and you’re going to need expert-level guidance to keep up with the ever-changing world of Google search signals, site structure and speed requirements.
- Get the Right Tech in Place: Check out our handy guide of 10 SEO Tools to Help Publishers Maximize Organic Search Performance.
- Start Building for Voice Search: Edelman advises on moving away from a simple focus on keywords to an approach that considers how customers use search, which includes consideration of a 25% increase in voice searches. Publishers should begin their efforts to become the go-to place when readers conduct relevant searches on voice assistants by building voice “skills” around their subject matter. (For example, “Alexa, give me the latest tech headlines.”)
- Optimize With Subscriptions in Mind: Long-term, a balanced search-social-subscriber approach to content discovery will be safest. And now that Google has promised to boost paid-for content in the search results of subscribers and support audience development efforts, that process might get easier. As part of its recently announced Google News Initiative, Google is launching “Subscribe with Google,” which will enable users to subscribe directly on news pages using the existing payment method linked to their Google account. And Google already enables subscriptions and micropayments through its AMP pages. Now’s the time to get up and stay up to speed on how to optimize for existing subscribers and converting new ones.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.