In One Chart, the Story of How Facebook Came to Take Over the Media and Marketing Worlds

Marketers and publishers alike have spent the past 15 years trying to appease the Google gods, but in 2015, we may have a new deity to worship.

The chart below, based on a just-released analysis of over 300,000 sites and 400 million visitors by Shareaholic, reveals how drastically the web has changed over the past two years. The biggest surprise: Facebook made a quantum leap and now drives a quarter of all web traffic.

Three years ago, Facebook was a relative blip compared to Google, driving only 6.53 percent of all traffic. But since then, its share of overall traffic has exploded by 277.25 percent, even though its user base only expanded by 60 percent over that time period. So what’s going on? As Shareaholic’s Danny Wong points out, it may be the result of “a far more engaged user base. According to Nielsen, Americans spent an average of 15.5 minutes each day on Facebook in August 2011. In November 2014, eMarketer published a study which suggests the average user spends 42.1 minutes each day on the ubiquitous social network.”

It’s important to point out that when we say social traffic is catching up to search in terms of power and importance, we’re not really talking about social media. We’re talking about Facebook.

Save for Pinterest, which only started gaining momentum in May 2011, every social network has seen its share of referral traffic drop over the past three years. And even Pinterest has begun to plateau of late. While Pinterest peaked with a 7.01 percent share of overall traffic in March 2014, that figure dropped to 5.06 percent this past year.

“[T]he platform has yet to realize its full potential,” Wong writes. “To do so, it needs to quickly shed its isolating for-women-only image and develop more mass-market appeal.’

The most notable disparity, however, may come after Pinterest. The remaining six social networks drive less than 2 percent of total web traffic. That includes the darling of the media and marketing world, Twitter. The platform spent the last five months of 2014 stuck below one percent of total traffic and has seen a decline of 24.41 percent since December 2011.

Of course, these numbers should be put in perspective. Every social network is going to work differently for every brand and publisher. Twitter still consistently drives about 20 percent of our traffic here at The Content Strategist, about three times that of Facebook. I’m not fretting about these stats because I don’t see the marketing and media crowd—our target audience—abandoning Twitter anytime soon. Likewise, I doubt most beauty and fashion brands/publishers finding success on Pinterest are worried that the network’s share of overall traffic has dipped back down to 5 percent.

But still, Facebook’s explosive growth—particularly over the past year—is worth paying close attention to. The network’s share of referral traffic has grown 59.58 percent over the last year alone, and it’s due to a lot more than increased engagement.

Facebook’s master plan

It all started in the fall of 2012, when Facebook started driving exponentially more traffic to publisher sites by giving them a prioritized place in the algorithm. From September 2012 to September 2013, TIME’s referral traffic from Facebook increased 208 percent. BuzzFeed’s went up 855 percent. And Bleacher Report saw an increase of 1,081 percent.

Overall, Facebook reported in October 2013, “average referral traffic from Facebook to media sites has increased by over 170%—almost tripled—in the past year.” In December 2013, they confirmed that was due to an algorithm change meant to prioritize “high-quality articles.”

Let’s go back to Shareaholic’s data. You can see Facebook’s share of referral traffic begin to creep up beginning in the fall of 2012 before quickly accelerating through the end of 2013.


You can pretty much read the story of Facebook over the past two years through this graph. Following the great algorithm spike at the end of 2013 came the crackdown against viral sites like Upworthy that were—to an extent—gaming the system and polluting news streams. Simultaneously, Facebook began restricting organic reach for brands to less than one percent of their followers while continuing to improve the reach of top publishers. This was a masterstroke by Facebook, which foresaw the changing economics of the media world as well as anyone.

By the start of 2014, content was truly becoming a commodity. Both B2B and B2C brands were investing far more in content marketing than ever before and needed a way to get more eyeballs on their content. And though Facebook was restricting brands from reaching the fan bases they had spent years growing, Facebook was also rolling out more robust, highly targeted native advertising options that would deliver those eyeballs as long as brands were willing to pay.

Brands and marketers spent months complaining about this pay-to-play system, but at the same time, they couldn’t ignore that Facebook was offering one of the most efficient uses of paid media out there—particularly when it came to mobile. It comes as no surprise Facebook’s ad revenue skyrocketed to $3.2 billion by the end of Q3 2014 as brands bit the bullet and paid to promote their content.

Via Business Insider

By 2014, native advertising exploded, with the biggest budgets going to top publishers like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, both of whom commonly command six-figure deals for sponsored content campaigns. Those publishers needed to ensure people would actually see those native posts in order to justify the expensive price tags. So with Facebook driving huge referral traffic to those sites, paying to promote brand-sponsored campaigns became a logical and easy solution for them to ensure the success of their native advertising programs.

Facebook 2015

Heading into 2015, Facebook is in an incredible position to continue their traffic dominance. The revolt over Facebook’s brand crackdown has largely subsided, and marketers have embraced Facebook for what it is: an incredibly powerful and efficient place to pay to promote your branded content.

But as David Carr reported this fall, publishers are wary of befalling a similar fate. The more traffic Facebook drives to publishers, the more reliant publishers become on the News Feed gods. Lately, Facebook has been trying to convince publishers to host their mobile sites within the social network’s walls and split the revenue. The social giant claims they’re pushing for the partnership because they want to improve the user experience through improved page load times, but publishers also realize Facebook knows the power of a one-sided, dependent relationship.

Carr brilliantly compared Facebook to “that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.” I prefer the metaphor of the mysterious god: You don’t know whether it wants to save you or smite you until it’s too late.

Image by Hootsuite

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