What a multi-year analysis of traffic trends tells us about the year ahead

Anyone charged with planning and generating content over the past few years can attest that strategies have had to evolve and adapt countless times. And while real-time analytics can inform decisions in the moment, when planning for the future, zooming out to compare multiple years of data can provide necessary insight for plotting the best way forward.

To better understand how readers have been behaving in the recent past and what these patterns and trends mean for the year ahead, we analyzed monthly traffic data from 2019, 2020, and 2021. Because of the volatility in traffic during this period, investigating one year at a time leaves out important context. It’s not until we examine the period as a whole that it starts to tell the story of where traffic trends are headed.

Traffic trending back toward stability

Total Monthly Pageviews 2019-2021

Looking at billions of pageviews across our network in each month of this period, it’s obvious that we had three very different years of traffic. 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, was relatively stable. It had its share of newsworthy events, but in comparison to the next two years, those spikes were notably less severe. 

2020, on the other hand, showed massive spikes at the beginning of the year with the outbreak of COVID-19 and again at the end of the year with the US presidential election. 2021 saw high traffic in January from the insurrection, impeachment, and inauguration, but, as the year went on, it trended back toward the stability of 2019.

Another way to compare these years is the delta between the best and worst months for pageviews in a given year. 2019, the year with the least peaks and valleys, had a delta of 17%. 2020, the spikiest year, was 47%. 2021 landed in between at 26%. While 2022 may yet see its share of spikes with global news like the war in Ukraine, we still expect average monthly pageviews to trend back toward the stability of pre-pandemic patterns. 

Traffic declined in 2021, still higher than 2019

Average Monthly Pageviews and Change from 2019

While 2021 regained some of the stability of 2019, it was also influenced by the readership gains of 2020. Though traffic declined in 2021 compared to the year before, it remained significantly higher than 2019 in terms of average monthly pageviews. This suggests that a portion of the readers gained during the big headlines of 2020 have kept reading, and this bodes well for the year ahead even as we expect traffic to settle somewhere between the pre-pandemic levels and last year.

Traffic by region

Total Monthly Pageviews by Region 2019-2021

Though global patterns offer us the big picture view, it’s equally important to drill down on different parts of the globe. When we look at traffic trends by region during the same period, we see that some parts of the world followed or even dictated global patterns, while other regions had a much different experience. 

For example, when we look at January of 2021, the month that had the highest traffic spike in the last three years, we see that North America as well as the region that encompases Europe, Middle East, and Africa experienced a similar increase in pageviews. Latin America and Asia / Pacific, meanwhile, experienced slight lifts in pageviews at the beginning of the year, but were relatively flat comparatively.

2021 Traffic Growth by Region

Not only did Asia / Pacific see a lift in January, but it was the only region to see more average monthly traffic in 2021 than in 2020. All other regions experienced a decline of more than 20%

Site size and its effect on traffic

We also analyzed this data on the change in traffic based on the size of the site. For this analysis, we created two groups. Any site that recorded more than 100,000 pageviews per day is considered a large site, and anything below that daily average is classified as a small site. 

During this period, it’s no surprise that large sites accounted for 98% of total traffic. What’s interesting is that those sites also experienced a bigger decline in traffic. Large site pageviews fell 21% over the course of 2021, while small sites saw a 17% decrease. So while most of these global patterns are driven by larger sites, it’s worth noting that there was more stability in the traffic of those sites that register less than 100,000 daily pageviews.

Key takeaways for 2022

1. Traffic declined in 2021, but it is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

2. Global traffic patterns don’t always tell the same story by region as we saw with Asia / Pacific in 2021.

3. The largest sites in the world account for more than 98% of total traffic. These sites also see a greater impact when traffic declines.

4. COVID and U.S. political news drove huge spikes in traffic in the early portion of 2021. While there’s always the possibility of unforeseen global news, we expect 2022 to return even closer to the stability of 2019 while continuing to retain a portion of the traffic bump from 2020.

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