Social media is driving traffic to news websites — and one source dwarfs all others

Using unique data from the Social Media Index (SMI), we show that Facebook remains the dominant source of social traffic, even as its share of total referrals is declining. The SMI also shows that Wednesdays are the best days for Twitter, whereas Facebook’s share of total traffic reaches its peak on Saturdays. While Twitter’s share of total referral traffic spikes on days when there is major news, Facebook is most important as a source of traffic in the days after major events such as elections or large-scale terrorist attacks.

1 Facebook is the dominant source of social media traffic

Facebook remains key to generating traffic from social media to news websites. Last year, over 12% of news publishers’ traffic came from Facebook. For much of the summer, Facebook contributed around 16% of all traffic to news websites, meaning that one in eight pageviews accrued by news publishers came from a single source.

Remarkably, Facebook’s traffic share was ten times higher than Twitter’s. The SMI clearly shows this dominance: the vast grey area in the SMI chart represents Facebook-generated traffic; Twitter is the sliver of red at the top.

The SMI shows that Facebook (grey) dwarfs Twitter (red) as a traffic source for news publishers’ websites.

Other social networks — LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, Reddit — hardly send any traffic to news publishers at all, though Pinterest is on an astonishing upward trajectory, which means it could rival Twitter in terms of traffic generated by next year. Snapchat, on the other hand, generates so little traffic that we decided not to feature it at all in our SMI.

2 Weekends are special for Facebook. For Twitter, it’s TGIW.

One trend that is easy to spot is that there are recurring spikes in Facebook’s traffic share that are as regular as clockwork. Week after week, Saturday is the day on which Facebook is most important as a traffic source. On average, Facebook is 10% more important as a traffic source on Saturdays and 8% more important on Sundays than it is from Monday to Friday. The exact opposite is true for Twitter. On Sundays, Twitter is over 12% less important as a source of traffic than it is on weekdays. While Facebook peaks on Saturdays, Twitter tends to so on Wednesdays.

Facebook (green) is most important as a traffic source on Saturdays. For Twitter (red), it’s Wednesdays are hump days.

3 Facebook has been declining as a source of traffic since July 2016. Twitter did, too, but is recovering.

If you think it’s all rosy for Facebook, here come the warning signs. Since July, when Facebook generated a record 16% of all pageviews for news publishers, there has been a steady decline in its importance for publishers. In the first week of March 2017, Facebook’s average share of traffic barely topped 13%, a value last seen in May 2016.

This is not result of a general decline in social media usage: Twitter initially saw a similar fall, but managed to arrest it over the course of the autumn. Since October, Twitter’s share of traffic has been recovering. We have investigated what is causing this pattern. Our next article will outline more detailed findings. Sign up here to get it straight to your inbox.

Facebook and Twitter generated less traffic in January 2017 than they did in July 2016 (relative to other referral sources such as search and email). Since then, Twitter has recovered. Facebook remains below its 2016 level.

4 When major news breaks, Twitter traffic spikes. For Facebook, it’s the days after the event that matter most.

Election day was the worst day in a month for Facebook, in terms of its relative importance as a traffic source for news publishers. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday afterwards, however, saw Facebook contribute a record share of traffic to third-party sites.

Share of traffic news websites received from Facebook (green) and Twitter (red). Election Day was Facebook’s worst day in November as more people turned to other news sources and/or accessed news websites directly or through other channels. Twitter’s share in traffic was indistinguishable from a normal Tuesday.

This points towards a broader trend: When zooming in on days with particularly noteworthy events, such as major terrorist attacks or elections, you will often find that Facebook does not play an outsized role on the day itself. Give it 48 hours however, and Facebook is likely to contribute a significantly higher share of traffic than it usually does. The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack is only one example of an event where we see this pattern.

Share of traffic news websites received from Facebook (green) and Twitter (red) around the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015. Twitter generates more referrals on the day of the attacks than it usually does. Facebook was more important in the days that followed.

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