The Powerhouses of the Internet Are Turning Hostile to Websites

Perhaps this was inevitable. In a system that encourages monopolies, and demands those monopolies increase growth rate and extract ever more revenue (sans caveats or exceptions), we probably shouldn’t be surprised. But, we should be prepared.

  • Google is referring less outgoing traffic to websites for the first time in its 17 year history (at least in the US, where its SERP features are most prevalent).
  • Facebook’s organic reach has dropped to a pittance of its original promise (remember when 2% reach seemed awful in 2013? Now many brands would be thrilled with 2%), making the irony of businesses who encouraged their customers to “follow us on Facebook!” all the more stark.
  • Reddit has made outlinking the exception rather than the rule.
  • Instagram, which never allowed outlinking (save in profiles) has become so prevalent, there’s concerns about whether it should have been allowed to sell to Facebook.
  • Amazon is dominating the online retail landscape and encouraging ever more web players to simply sell via its platform (and buy ads in Amazon’s own product searches) rather than try to compete against the e-commerce giant for traffic.
  • In their post on Improving Search for the Next 20 Years, Google promises (implicitly, not overtly) to do more to answer people’s searches in their results (vs. sending them to other websites), to predict your needs before you have them (so you don’t even need to search), and to solve more queries with visual content (with the implication that no traffic nor credit be given to the creator).
  • Apple News is driving loads of engagement for publishers, but keeps users inside the Apple News app by limiting outlinking
  • LinkedIn, starting last year, is favoring posts without links.
  • YouTube has done a clever job of hiding links that appear below videos in the descriptions, often truncating video publishers’ descriptions to just before the link would appear.
  • It’s my guess that Twitter is doing something similar to LinkedIn and biasing to give more prominence to tweets that don’t contain URLs. Tweets without URLs definitely correlate to more engagement+amplification (but this could be a result of user behavior, not intentional network design)

In the last five years, there has not been a single major website or dominant web property that has embraced, rewarded, or significantly grown their outlinking. We’ve reached an era of a less-connected web, a web focused on retaining users rather than sharing content. The blogosphere still holds on, clinging to its noble practices of sharing what’s share-worthy. And a few sites like Hacker News, Techmeme, Memeorandum, and SparkToro Trending, still prioritize and benefit from aggregation and sharing. But with the rise of voice answers and branded devices (Google Home, Alexa, etc), the future of referral traffic looks grim.

Below is a visual I created based on Jumpshot’s February 2018 data. It shows percentages for each referrer, but does not show the overall numbers of referrals sent (or, better yet, number of referrals per visit/visitor). However, we have plenty of data (including Google’s drop in outgoing traffic starting in Fall 2017) to suggest this direction.

The question for marketers and businesses of all kinds is: How should we respond?

In my opinion, there’s a few ways to play this:

  • A) Embrace the monopolies of the web and build our brands on their platforms
  • B) Reject the large platforms and build exclusively to favor direct visitors to our websites
  • C) Use the big platforms to as traffic referral sources, accepting the lower and lower reach over time, while centering conversion and visitor value on our own sites
  • D) Build multiple kinds of content and experiences for other platforms and our own websites, favoring off-site content for reach+branding and on-site content for customer captures and conversions

None of these are silver bullets, and I can see embracing any of these four being a reasonable choice depending on your business, field, and customer habits. A local yoga studio might choose to embrace Google Maps and simply build entirely on their platform (it’s risky, but plausible). A chemical engineering consultancy might entirely reject the big platforms and do all their marketing exclusively on their own website (with a budget for paid promotion in a few other channels). A publisher could continue to leverage the platforms’ declining reach while trying to bolster subscriptions or other loyalty-inducing offers and features.

None of these are entirely wrong. The only truly poor choice, in my experience, is failing to recognize this shift and choosing not to make an intentional, strategic decision.

p.s. Below is a more complete chart of the traffic referrer data I received from Jumpshot for February 2018. In the months ahead, this will be updated again and I’ll be able to show more of a trend.