The flip to mobile-first

It is official: we are finally “mobile-first.” At the conclusion of Q2, we reached the much-anticipated pivot point when all Mobile traffic (direct and referred) caught up with Desktop (see chart below). But while we waited, the mobile ecosystem and what we thought we knew about mobile has evolved. Is your media company prepared?

Here are five trends to watch as media flips to mobile-first.

1. The mobile pivot point

Since January 2017, total traffic from desktop to news sites declined by 14%, while mobile traffic increased by 34%. One of the main drivers for this is the growth in referred traffic from pages using AMP. For news sites, mobile has finally met desktop.

Mobile vs Desktop Total Traffic

2. The shapeshifting reader

Mobile readers are now more likely to go direct to mobile apps & homepages by typing in the URL than they are to be referred to a site by Facebook. Recent data shows that direct mobile traffic surpassed all Facebook-referred traffic as of mid-October and is steadily climbing.

(For further reading: Channels, conversions, and churn: Why better mobile UX is key for subscriber revenue)

Despite the recent News Feed changes in Facebook which have resulted in declining traffic to publishers (-15% since January 2017), readers are still seeking out news, and they are seeking it out on mobile devices.

Direct Mobile Traffic vs All Facebook Traffic

3. The browser: the next major traffic source?

Are discovery tools in the browser the next main gateway to news?

We’ve seen a rise of in-browser content recommendation modules, such as Google Chrome Suggestions, and with it a rise of referred traffic; since last year, traffic from Google Chrome Suggestions has grown 21x. Another is Pocket, which has an integration with Firefox and was acquired by Mozilla in February 2017. Pocket may be significantly smaller than Google Chrome Suggestions, but with a 297% increase in referral traffic since January 2017, it is worth watching.

4. The next class of traffic referrer emerges

In looking beyond Google Search and Facebook, we see that traffic from Twitter to publisher sites has declined by 18% since January 2017 and is now at a similar traffic level to Google Chrome Suggestions. While Twitter may be off of its high, there are very strong gains in the last year from a new tier of news aggregators including the brand new Google News app, Flipboard, Instagram and Axel Springer’s Upday app. Here’s what we’re seeing:

  • Google News is quickly trending up as a referrer source, particularly since May when Google announced an all new Google News app that replaced Google Play Newsstand as well as the old Google News & Weather apps. We will be watching this closely in the next few months, particularly as Google continues to execute the next steps in its mobile news strategy.
  • Flipboard has had a dramatic increase in the amount of referrer traffic it sends to publishers, and it is now a meaningful leading referrer, having doubled since June 2017.  
  • Instagram, which recently announced its billionth user, is commonly thought of as only a photo and video sharing app. However, we’re also seeing that it’s becoming a meaningful source of traffic for news sites; Instagram referrer traffic to publishers has grown 232% since January 2017.

Even more surprising is Upday News for Samsung – a news app from Axel Springer that is featured on Samsung phones. Since January 2017, Upday saw a huge tick upwards of 763% growth in referrer traffic. Upday is not only one of the fastest growing sources of traffic for publishers in Europe, but it is also now driving roughly the same level of traffic to publishers as Instagram.

Total Traffic by Referrer 2018

All of this indicates that the consumer demand for news via apps has strong momentum, and you should keep a close eye on the growing news app ecosystem as part of your content distribution strategy.

5. The more-engaged-than-we-thought mobile homepage reader

You may think reader attention is more scattered on mobile than on desktop, but our data shows otherwise, specifically with regard to mobile homepages. On mobile homepages, the average visitor spends 40% more time actively engaging than their desktop counterpart (22 engaged seconds on mobile vs.16 engaged seconds on desktop). While this comparison isn’t entirely apples-to-apples (you could imagine that a reader is more likely to idle in a more information-dense desktop experience), this is a notable reversal of the reading behavior we see on article pages, where desktop readers engage slightly more (38 engaged seconds vs. 34).

Mobile vs. Desktop Engagement with Homepages

Mobile readers are also 20% more likely to click-through to articles than those on desktop. Mobile homepage visitors click through to articles 68% of the time, compared to 57% on desktop. Whereas desktop homepage readers scroll more of the page, mobile readers are more engaged in reading articles by clicking from the mobile homepage into content.

What does this mean in terms of how we value the mobile reader or monetize the mobile homepage?  


There is no doubt that the consumer, publisher, and device-maker shift to mobile is driving growth and evolution in how and where traffic flows around content. Consumers are increasingly seeking content directly on publishers’ mobile websites and apps, as well as on news aggregators, where we see a new class of secondary traffic referrers emerging. And with mobile homepage readers more engaged in content than we thought, now may be the time to rethink what we thought we knew about mobile.

More in Research