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Tech Publishers and platforms are in a constant tug-of-war (GOOGL, FB)

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In the race to goose traffic to their sites, publishers often seem to run from one third-party distributor to another, only to find the rules of engagement and potential rewards in a continuous state of flux.

share of publisher referral traffic play

share of publisher referral traffic

(BI Intelligence)

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In the race to goose traffic to their sites, publishers often seem to run from one third-party distributor to another, only to find the rules of engagement and potential rewards in a continuous state of flux.

One trend that’s likely to incite deeper change is that mobile is increasingly driving referral traffic to publisher sites, as users shift away from desktop and as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Since January 2017, mobile web traffic to publishers grew more than 20%, according to analysis by media analytics firm Chartbeat per NiemanLab.

Two recent developments show the flux of risks and rewards to publishers when they work with platforms for third-party distribution:

  • A mobile feature on Google Chrome’s browser for smartphones called “Articles for You” (also known as Chrome Content Suggestions) is now driving significant traffic to publisher sites, particularly news sites, according to Chartbeat per Business Insider. “Articles for You” delivered 341 million visits per month to publishers worldwide in December 2017, up from just 15 million visits per month at the beginning of the year. The growth makes the mobile browser feature now the fourth-biggest referrer to publishers, behind Google Search, Facebook, and Twitter, and that’s excluding any traffic that might be coming from iOS devices, which Chartbeat doesn’t track. Even without additions from iOS, “Articles for You” referrals from Android devices alone are now two-thirds the size of referrals from Twitter on desktop, Android, and iOS.
  • Some publishers are seeing volatility in traffic to their Discover content on Snapchat following the app’s recent redesign, according to New York Magazine. Some say that traffic has dropped by “more than half,” though others say they haven’t seen much damage. Snap’s latest Q4 earnings report showed that Discover content partners generated over $100 million via Snapchat’s ad revenue-sharing deals in 2017, up from $58 million in 2016 and just $10 million in 2015. Some publishers suggest that because Discover is now being powered by an algorithm, machine learning might improve the user experience over time, which could stabilize metrics going forward. If publishers see marked declines in traffic-driven revenues from Discover, they may have less incentive to participate.

For now, publishers may continue to run from tree to tree in search of referral traffic from third-party distributors. As publishers seek more consistent growth, a broader shift may drive more publishers toward subscription or community-based models that prioritize building loyal readership over chasing clicks.