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Facebook Influencing How Readers Get The News

May 9, 2011

The flow of traffic to the Web’s 25 largest news destinations is being influenced by Facebook as users share stories on their pages, reports a study published by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The most popular 25 news websites were analyzed in order to gauge the behavior of news consumers online. The study looked at how users get to the sites, the duration of time spent on the site and how deeply they explore the site, as well as where they go after they leave the site.

AFP reports that the top 25 sites examined in the study included 11 newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Britain’s Daily Mail; Six broadcast or cable television networks: MSNBC, CNN, ABC, Fox, CBS and the BBC; four were pure news aggregators: Google News, the Examiner, Topix and Bing News; three were “hybrid” sites that mix aggregation of other news sources with original reporting: Yahoo! News, AOL and The Huffington Post; and one was a wire service: Reuters.

Forty percent of the traffic to these news sites comes from outside referrals, reports the study.

Most visitors to the top news sites are described by the study as “casual user” who visit the site just a few times a month, and spend only a few minutes there at a time, according to the study. Yahoo! News received the lowest number of casual visitors, but this comprises 55% of the 77% of traffic, on average.

More loyal and frequent users or “power users” are those visitors who return to the site more than 10 times a month and spend as much as an hour or more at a time. However, these make up an average of only seven percent of total users, the study says, and are mainly visitors to CNN with 18 percent and 16 percent to Fox News.

Although Google remains the top referral service for the news sites, social media sites such as Facebook are “rapidly becoming a competing driver of traffic,” the study says. The Drudge Report and Yahoo! were also ranked by Pew as major traffic drivers.

AFP reports that Facebook was the second or third most important driver of traffic, responsible for 3% of traffic to the 21 news sites that allowed data to be tracked, says Amy Mitchell, co-author of the study; and, five sites received 6 to 8 percent of their readership from Facebook.

Referrals from Facebook typically come from links that were posted by friends when the “like” button is activated. Facebook has encouraged other websites to place these buttons by their content as well.

Google still dominates the search engine with 30% of traffic referral to the top news sites using an automated formula, the study says, but Facebook and other sharing tools, such as Addthis.com are giving online social circles the ability to point out interesting content.

Meanwhile, even with about 175 million accounts reported last year, Twitter is sending less than 1 percent of the traffic to the major news sites, says the study. The Los Angeles Times’ website was the only site that received more traffic from Twitter users than Facebook users, with 3.5 percent compared to 2 percent from Facebook, the study showed.

With more than 500 million users worldwide, Facebook is positioned well for the shift. The study says, “If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.”

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