What drives news traffic, social or search?

23 Nov 2015

News sites all over the world are trapped in a battle for traffic, but the ground beneath their feet is ever moving, tilting this way and that. Should you use Facebook to promote your articles? Should you use Google? The answer isn’t as simple as the question, it seems.

Looking at the seven biggest news stories of 2015, data analytics company Parse.ly investigated what was the key driver behind their coverage. Unfortunately, the results – despite social leading the charge – are rather convoluted.

The success of search over social, in some cases, came down to personal conservatism, whereas immediate social outrage in some cases meant sharing, commenting, and liking drove the narrative.

A note, the top stories were derived from Parse.ly’s network of digital publishing clients, which includes the likes of Wired, The Atlantic, Reuters, Mashable, The Next Web, Business Insider and The Daily Telegraph.

The seven top stories were:

  • The Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao superfight in May
  • The Ashley Madison data hack in July
  • Bobbi Kristina Brown’s death in July
  • The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January
  • Rachel Dolezal resigning from a lobby group in June
  • Schoolkid Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest in September
  • Cecil The Lion’s killing in July

Parse.ly authority report

On the whole, social was the key driver, but the manner of the stories, it seems, determined the success of each route. For example, the killing of Cecil the Lion is viewed as a purely viral story – no connection to any other news trends at the time, and almost entirely elicited out of emotion.

This meant that the follow-up news coverage around Cecil garnered little success for publishers, in comparison to the immediate explosion of information.

The same can be true of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest, with social media entirely dominant for the short lifespan of the story.

Elsewhere, the Ashley Madison hack was largely dominated by search traffic (at a ratio of almost 2:1), with Parse.ly’s Allie VanNest suspecting the content was primed for incognito investigation by the public.

“Our hypothesis is that the elicit, and possibly amoral, subject matter was something that people wanted to read about, yet didn’t want to show their social networks publicly,” said VanNest.

“If this is the case, it’s a good example of how psychology plays a role in shaping media traffic.”

So, clearly, the formula for success is based on the base ingredients publishers already have. Viral stories seem heavily reliant on shares, while more serious, drawn-out news stories are best served through search.

Parse.ly Facebook/Google report

Back in June, Facebook finally overtook Google to take the role of primary news driver online, something it has actually strengthened ever since.

But the nuances derived from Parse.ly’s latest research shows that behind the macro numbers there are often curious, micro nuances.

Car driver image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic