The graph above tells maybe the most interesting—and definitely the most surprising—story of the past year of digital media.
It shows two years of referrals from Facebook and Google to the Buzzfeed Partner Network, a collection of websites (including this one!) that share their traffic stats with Buzzfeed. It quantifies what so many publishers have experienced: a massive surge of traffic from Facebook, unparalleled in its regular, day-after-day size and scope.
The graph comes from Peter Kafka, a reporter at the tech news site Recode, who notices that the graph validates Buzzfeed’s long-term bet that Facebook would eventually be more important than Google.
That’s true, though the graph interests me for three other reasons:
1. The kind of traffic surge from Facebook—so vertiginous to be almost hockey-stick-ish—wasn’t an accident. Facebook didn’t grow at that rate in 2013, especially among U.S. users, and “naturally” eclipse Google. As I’ve written before, Facebook’s directing that kind of traffic because it wants to direct that traffic—it wants to be a digital publishing kingmaker.
2. On the web, we rarely see search engine optimized (SEO) stories anymore. That’s partly because Google has gotten better at giving you the answers you want—for instance, what time the Super Bowl is. But it’s also because SEO journalism just doesn’t make commercial sense anymore. Social trumps search, at least when it comes to the attention that sells ads.
3. When talking about his new journalism outlet, Ezra Klein has hinted about how it might provide context through the use of encyclopedia-like explainers. Those may make good journalistic sense, and writing them may be easy for the site’s reporters, helping them understand and “own” their beats. Another way of looking at them, though, is as an SEO play. They would be very likely to appear at the top of Google search results for certain news events. In a news world where Google can’t drive the traffic it once did, does a strategy like that make sense?