Direct Traffic Beats Facebook By A Mile For Engagement On News Sites

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that readers of news websites who navigate directly to a site are significantly more loyal than those who come via referrals from Facebook or search.

People who type in a URL, click on a bookmark or use a news site as their browser home page are certainly going to spend more time browsing the site than people who spot interesting items in their Facebook feed.

So results showing higher engagement for direct traffic on news sites from a Pew Research study published this week are most interesting because of the magnitude of the findings and because it appears difficult to convert drive-by readers into loyal customers.

The upshot from the authors:

At a time when news organizations are working to understand how consumers interact with news in the digital space and are implementing digital subscription plans while energetically pushing content in social spaces, these findings encapsulate some of the key challenges facing digital news. Facebook and search are critical for bringing added eyeballs to individual stories, and they do so in droves. But the connection a news organization has with any individual coming to their website via search or Facebook seems quite limited. For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.

The engagement deficit is stark, and almost identical on Facebook or search. Direct visitors spent three times as long per visit (4 1/2 minutes to less than 2), viewed five times as many pages per month (25 to 4) and visited three times as often per month (11 to 3).

Referral Traffic to News Sites

The data — for desktop and laptop users — was gathered by a comScore panel of 1 million people during April, May and June of 2013. The analysis doesn’t include mobile traffic to the sites, because comScore’s mobile panel sample isn’t large enough — but Pew said the results translate to mobile as well, quoting NPR Director of Web and Engagement Patrick Cooper: “The big thing publishers should take away from the desktop data, even if desktop is going away, is that: 1) method of entry matters to the experience and 2) they can’t control method of entry.”

The study included news sites in comScore’s top 15 in monthly unique visitors for June 2013 and those in the top 20 of Facebook’s most shared pages for that month. And the study’s headline result held true for all types of news site, from legacy media such as the New York Times, CNN and ABC News, to digital native BuzzFeed to specialty news-opinion sites with high Facebook referral traffic such at and

For instance, BuzzFeed, which unabashedly creates content optimized for share-ability and drew 50% of its referral traffic from Facebook during the study period, received twice the minutes per visit (5.6 to 2.3) and six times the pages per visitor (17.8 to 2.7) from users who came to the site directly.

As the study notes, this works well with BuzzFeed’s advertising model. The picture is different for organizations such as the Chicago Tribune, which are depending on subscriptions or memberships. In the study, the Tribune’s ratio of direct referral to Facebook referral traffic for monthly minutes per visit was  5.8 to 1.7 and page views per visitor was  23.1 to 1.9.

Such statistics might prompt reassessments of how much time to devote to news brands publishing on Facebook.

Another cautionary finding for news sites: readers who visit a site via Facebook or search don’t cross over to become direct viewers very often. In a majority of the sites, more than 75% of visitors from Facebook only accessed the site from Facebook during the month.

Dig deeper into the study here: Audience Routes: Direct, Search & Facebook

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Facebook | Top News


About The Author: is Third Door Media's Social Media Correspondent, reporting on the latest news for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. He spent 24 years with the Los Angeles Times, serving as social media and reader engagement editor from 2010-2014. A graduate of UC Irvine and the University of Missouri journalism school, Beck started started his career at the Times as a sportswriter and copy editor. Follow Martin on Twitter (@MartinBeck), Facebook and/or Google+.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+

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  • James R. Halloran

    Very interesting research! But this article on PRNewswer shows that readers are less engaged by search and social combined. So, I’m not sure search is all that better in areas of engagement/ effectiveness.

  • Martin Beck

    Hi James,

    Thanks for the comment. I think the study makes it clear that on these news sites direct visitors are much more engaged than visitors who arrive from *either* social or search.

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