In the early hours of May 1, editors at several popular websites, including Gawker, Vice and Mashable, noticed that story links they had posted to Facebook
were disappearing. Traffic to their sites fell off a cliff.
The development came just 10 days after Facebook changed the algorithm for its “news feed”—the stream of posts users see—and warned that other sites may notice their Web traffic drop as a result. Following frantic calls to Facebook headquarters by executives at the Web publishers, it became clear the problem was a coding glitch. Within 30 minutes the situation was mostly resolved, an official at one site said.
Still, the episode underscored how much online publishers have come to rely on Facebook as a source of traffic, and how vulnerable they are to changes that affect what appears in users’ news feeds.
Anxiety over the social-media giant’s intentions in news publishing has risen in recent weeks ahead of the expected announcement of an initiative called Instant Articles, through which Facebook will publish content from major outlets like the New York Times,
National Geographic and BuzzFeed rather than linking back to their sites.
Many publishers are cautiously awaiting details of the plan, hoping that Facebook can help them better tap into the fast-growing mobile advertising market. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 39 out of 50 news sites now have more traffic coming from mobile users than from desktop users.
While many news sites are struggling to make money off that growing mobile audience, Facebook is proving an ace at selling mobile ads. The company last year accounted for 35% of the mobile display advertising market, followed by Google Inc.
which had 12%, according to eMarketer. Overall, including search and other forms of mobile advertising, Google had 37% market share to 18% for Facebook.
So far, the economics Facebook is offering sound compelling: publishers that sell ads against an article posted on the site can keep 100% of the money, or they can keep 70% of the revenue if Facebook sells the ad, people familiar with the matter have said.
“I think most people would view 70% as being better than zero,” said Jon Steinberg, North America chief executive for DailyMail.com. “We would love to be on Facebook if we are invited.”
But executives at some Web publishers question if those economics are Facebook’s endgame, or if the program is simply a way to lure publishers into a dependency that will give the social-networking site pricing power and leverage over content creators in the future.
Mike Dyer, chief strategy officer at the Daily Beast, said the publisher has learned from its dealings with Google, including how economic arrangements can evolve over time. “We saw the terms ultimately change,” he said. “Who is to say that couldn’t happen again?”
A Google spokeswoman said for most sites that use a standardized ad service, revenue arrangements haven’t changed over time, but that others have negotiated individually and may have seen fluctuations over the years. “This is very much something that is case by case,” she said.
Facebook declined to comment.
Facebook isn’t asking publishers to create exclusive material for Instant Articles, but rather high-quality content that will stand out within the newsfeed and load quickly on phones, in contrast to the slower process users experience when clicking through to stories from links.
Newsrooms have already adapted to Google’s power as a driver of Web traffic. Editors in recent years have been trained to develop headlines that are “search engine optimized,” and have learned other tricks to ensure they aren’t punished by having stories appear lower in search results.
Now, they are contending with Facebook’s growing clout. Late last year, Facebook surpassed Google as the leading driver of referral traffic to news sites, according to analytics firm Parse.ly, and as of March was responsible for 27% of all news traffic across a multitude of sites. Some sites now say Facebook is responsible for as much as 70% of their traffic.
“They’re not only the largest source of traffic for pretty much all Web publishers, but are now almost the exclusively important one,” said Shaul Olmert, founder of Playbuzz, a social-media list-generating platform. “While we rely so heavily on them, they don’t owe us anything.”
The Instant Article program isn’t the first time Facebook has delved into news partnerships. In 2011, it was joined by the Washington Post to create Social Reader, a kind of newspaper for Facebook that aggregated news from a variety of media sources into a single feed. But some users complained that the program deluged users with spam by sharing any post opened with all a reader’s friends. Traffic fizzled after Facebook tweaked its algorithm and the effort ended after about a year.
Facebook says its algorithm adjustments are meant, in part, to reduce the amount of “click bait” and unwanted content its users have complained clutter their streams. But some publishers worry that Facebook may be moving toward other limitations. Last year, the company placed restrictions on brands that make it harder for them to reach users without paying for ads.
The power of Facebook can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Last August, Mr. Olmert said Playbuzz was puzzled why traffic had dropped more than 25% compared with the month earlier. The culprit, it turns out, was the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” Facebook users for much of the summer had posted videos of people dousing themselves with ice water to raise money to battle ALS, so they shared far fewer links to news items, resulting in broad traffic declines, Mr. Olmert said.
By October, when the ice-bucket phenomenon had largely passed, Playbuzz’s traffic more than doubled to 20.3 million unique visitors, compared to September, according to analytics firm comScore Inc.
“It is dangerous to use Facebook or any one source as your engine for growth,” Mr. Olmert said. “You need to make real efforts to diversify.”
—Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.