Referral traffic (desktop + mobile) to the top 30 Facebook publishers (as defined by their reliance on Facebook) plunged 32% from January to October, according to SimpleReach, a distribution analytics company. The more reliant the publisher on Facebook, the bigger the hit, says the report: among the top 10, the drop was a steeper 42.7%.

According to social traffic tracker SimilarWeb from Lucia Moses, looking at the 50 biggest publishers in Facebook from January to September, the Huffington Post’s Facebook traffic fell 60.1%, to 16 million, among desktop users. (NB: though many publishers are getting upwards of 50% of their traffic on mobile devices, desktop is significant, says the report, because it’s still where most publishers make the lion’s share of their revenue.)

Across all 50, the biggest drop in traffic in the period took place from January to February, when publishers’ Facebook traffic fell an average of 75%. There was a smaller but also significant drop from March to April, though there were a few exceptions, notes the report.

It’s hard to isolate publishers’ own actions from things Facebook does that might affect traffic performance, says the report. What worked six months ago to drive shares doesn’t necessarily work today. One publisher, speaking anonymously, said users are doing more of their Facebook article sharing via text or email, which would cut into its Facebook referral traffic.

The most common theory, says the report, is that as Facebook has been trying to keep users in its ecosystem, it’s encouraged publishers to upload their articles and videos directly to the social network (Instant Articles). That means fewer traditional links in news feeds that take people back to publisher sites. Facebook reports that those Instant Articles are getting shared more than publishers’ regular links.

While Facebook is letting publishers keep all the revenue from ads they sell on their Instant Articles, Facebook can change the rules at any time; and there’s no clear path for publishers to monetize native video, says the report. Facebook began testing video ads over the summer, with publishers getting 45% of the revenue, but isn’t letting publishers sell video ads themselves yet.

Getting users to spend more time in its app isn’t the only way Facebook can benefit from its push to get publishers to upload content directly. Publishers that see their referral traffic fall are, in some cases, spending more with Facebook to promote their content to make up for the organic traffic loss, says the report.

Another theory for the decline is that a recent Facebook algorithm change favored more user content in the feed at the expense of publisher content. Facebook has reportedly been trying to prompt people to interact more, says the report.

But, in a statement, Facebook denied it’s sending less traffic to publishers overall: “… over the past two years, we’ve seen referral traffic to publishers from Facebook grow significantly, nearly across the board… results vary by publisher… some are experiencing continued growth in referral traffic while others have seen declines… on the whole, referrals, (including Instant Article clicks)… to the top 1,000 publishers… are at the same level today as they were in January…”

However, says the report, Jared Grusd, CEO of The Huffington Post, concludes that audience measurement tools haven’t caught up to the trend, as companies and marketers look at traditional metrics measuring only one slice of the equation. He believes the era of Facebook being the dominant referral source for publishers is eroding, as the social network has pushed publishers to upload content directly to the app.

For additional information from SimilarWeb, please visit here.

 

Originally published in Media Post here.