What happens when Facebook goes down? People read the news

What would the world look like without Facebook? Chartbeat had a glimpse into that on Aug. 3, 2018, when Facebook went down  for 45 minutes and traffic patterns across the web changed in an instant. What did people do? According to our data, they went directly to publishers’ mobile apps and sites (as well as to search engines) to get their information fix.  This window into behavior reflects broader changes we see taking hold this year around content discovery, particularly on mobile. This is good news for publishers.

Traffic Trends Reverse

Despite volatility driven by algorithm shifts and intense news cycles, user demand for content (represented by traffic across the web) is quite stable. But the sources of that traffic are anything but static. In fact, we’ve seen a major reversal in the specific sources driving traffic to publisher sites in the last year.

Top Sources of Mobile Traffic Across Chartbeat Sites

Key shifts:

  • Mobile traffic has seen double-digit growth and surpassed desktop, which saw double-digit declines.
  • On mobile, Facebook is down nearly 40% since January 2017, while Google Search has seen a 2x growth in that same time period. That means increases in Google Search referral traffic have more than offset any declines in Facebook referral traffic.
  • Additionally — and of significant importance — mobile direct traffic to publishers is now greater than traffic sent by Facebook to publishers’ sites. This means consumers are now more likely to get their news by typing in a publisher URL or opening an app than by being referred through Facebook.

Mobile Content Discovery Apps Broaden

We’ve also observed content discovery habits changing, as “built-in” mobile aggregators emerge as meaningful referrers. While traffic driven by more traditional referrers like Yahoo, Twitter, and Outbrain has stayed roughly constant for the last 18 months, news aggregator apps that are built directly into the mobile phone or browser experience are now driving significant traffic to publishers. These apps have seen incredible growth:

  • Google Chrome Suggestions, a personalized newsfeed built into Chrome’s mobile browser, is up 20x.
  • News aggregator Flipboard is up 2x in the past year.
  • The new Google News app, which is pre-installed on Android devices, is up roughly 3x since it relaunched in May.

Built-in portal apps aren’t the only apps to watch; publisher-owned news apps are also making a comeback. According to the Digital News Report 2017 from Reuters Institute, weekly use of news apps in the U.S. was up roughly 40% in 2017. And Chartbeat data shows that app users are not just consuming more content, but they are also an incredibly loyal audience – 5.7x more loyal on average than visitors who arrive from platforms like Facebook and Google.

All of which makes the Aug. 3 Facebook incident even more interesting to observe.

Facebook Referral Traffic for August 3, 2018

The Facebook Outage

Chartbeat analyzed the Facebook outage using global traffic data across a sample of more than 4,000 sites, and presented a summary of what happened at the ONA conference. Key data points show that when Facebook went down, referrals to news sites fell as expected, but other activity more than made up for it.

  • Direct traffic to publishers’ websites increased 11%, while traffic to publishers’ mobile apps soared 22%.
  • Search referral traffic to publishers was also up 8%.
  • Surprisingly, there was a net new total traffic increase of 2.3%, meaning that the number of pages consumed across the web spiked upward in this timeframe.
Traffic Sources and The Facebook Outage

One of the fascinating things we noticed in the data was just how instantaneous the reaction was: when Facebook went down, it took only seconds to break the habit. Habitual Facebook usage is so intertwined with mobile usage, however, that it is hard to say what would really happen in a Facebook-absent world. Would mobile consumption be the same without it?

Facebook drives a tremendous amount of traffic to publishers, but at the same time, it also competes in terms of consumer time and attention. It is heartening to see that when Facebook is temporarily out of the picture, consumers still seek out the stories they want— and this is good news for publishers.

This data was originally presented at the Online News Association 2018 annual conference by Josh Schwartz, Chief of Product, Engineering and Data Science at Chartbeat. You can watch it here.

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