Media Briefing: For some publishers, Google referral traffic is down

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This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

In this week’s Media Briefing, some publishers share that referral traffic from Google Search and Discover are on the decline, following similar patterns to the social referral declines this year.

  • Google referrals are in flux
  • 3 Qs with iHeartMedia’s Will Pearson
  • Jezebel returns, layoffs are on the horizon at the Washington Post and more

Google referrals are in flux

It’s been well reported that publishers are seeing less and less referral traffic come from social media platforms, as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok aim to keep their users on their platforms for as long as possible. 

But some publishers are voicing concerns that referral traffic from Google is also slipping, particularly for commerce content, though not limited to that category. Two publishers told Digiday they’ve seen reductions in Google referrals as high as 60-70% for a few of their sites, while other sites are flat or slightly up year over year. 

“The entire media sector is down in terms of their audience size… We know that there’s been big changes on the social media front… but we certainly have seen a decrease in traffic from Google,” said a media executive from a digital portfolio publisher who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A Google spokesperson told Digiday in a written statement, “We consistently improve our systems so we can continue to show relevant and helpful results. None of our updates target specific pages or sites, including publishers.” 

On the whole, though, third-party audience measurement companies like Chartbeat and Similarweb, reported that referral traffic from Google is flat year over year between October 2022 to October 2023 (the most recent data available).

As a percentage of total external referral traffic going to about 2,000 publisher sites that Chartbeat measures, Google’s overall representation did decrease marginally year over year from an average of about 36.6% in October 2022 to 35.7% in October 2023, per a company spokesperson. Chartbeat measures Google Discover as part of Google Search.

Meanwhile, Similarweb — which tracked Google referral traffic to the 100 top news and media domains in the U.S., including the AP News, Reader’s Digest, Vogue and The Washington Post — saw a 2 percentage point increase in the average monthly referral traffic from Google between October 2022 to October 2023. On average, the publishers included in Similarweb’s data set received 32.8% of their external traffic from Google in October 2022 and a year later, that number rose to 34.7%, according to data shared with Digiday.

Of course there were some outliers in the list, including Reader’s Digest, which saw a decrease in Google’s share of referral traffic from 66% to 51.1% year over year during that time period. Trusted Media Brands declined to speak with Digiday for this story.

“It’s all over the board. I have [publisher clients] that have seen decreases of greater than 60%. I have some that are only off by 15-20%. And if you stack the sites up next to each other, I don’t think there’s any difference in quality between those sites,” said Jeff Misenti, co-founder of The Publisher Desk, which publishes a handful of sites including sports news site Sportsnaut, one of the sites that experienced a significant Google traffic decline. 

“It’s not true to everyone, but the ones that it is true to, it’s significant,” said Tom Pachys, co-founder and CEO of publisher video platform provider EX.CO, who said the company’s access to thousands of publisher domains have revealed dips for specific clients while others are doing OK. For example, one sports publisher client saw significant increases in Google traffic this year, whereas one of the company’s local news sites saw a significant drop in Google referrals in Q1 but has stabilized since then.

Crush of commerce 

The media executive said it felt like there was an “unprecedented” number of algorithm updates — around eight or nine — that Google implemented in 2023, where the past five years experienced more in the neighborhood of five to six updates. 

The Google spokesperson claimed that the number of algorithm updates have been consistent over the past three years, with a total of 10 in 2021, 10 in 2022 and the company is on track to have 10 updates in 2023 as well. 

“Some of those updates have been very detrimental to our websites, others have been slightly positive,” said the exec, who continued that some of the individual websites in their company’s portfolio – particularly those in the product review and commerce space — experienced declines upwards of 60-70% year over year. On the whole, however, the entire portfolio is netting at about a 10% reduction in referral traffic from Google this year.

“We have websites that were particularly exposed because they were in the product review space,” the media exec said. “It’s very hard to generate any audience in the e-commerce product review space today whereas it was not the case a year or 18 months ago.” 

A year ago, Google released a series of core algorithm updates that impacted many commerce publishers’ product review content. The updates last year were aimed at prioritizing articles with original written content and photography to weed out unhelpful content from readers’ search results. And those updates have seemingly persisted in this year’s updates as well, but even after trying to update their strategy to meet the new guidelines provided by Google, the media exec said it’s not enough. 

“Since those algorithm changes, many [of our] brands modified their content strategies and stood up more original photography and did 2,000-word reviews. We do have brands that are complying, or adhering to, Google’s recommendations in the commerce and product review space. But we have still not seen ranking or traffic levels anywhere close to what we want,” the exec said.  

Discover to blame

The media exec further characterized the Google referral declines as primarily coming from Google Discover, which makes up about 80% of the portfolio publishers’ Google traffic. While the audience that comes from Discover isn’t as lucrative as Google’s search audience — which the exec explained was because search audiences often have more intent behind their click versus those following an interesting headline they see on Discover — Discover still contributes a major portion of its audience. 

“Google Discover, we’ve seen the largest decay over the past year,” the exec said. “Google Web Search, we’ve seen peaks and valleys and an overall decay. Google News, which is the smallest, we really haven’t seen much change there.” 

What’s particularly frustrating about the Discover traffic falling is that there doesn’t seem to be “consistency or a rhyme or reason” why referrals are decreasing here. “It’s the black box” that “Google won’t comment on how it works,” the exec said.

The Google spokesperson said that Discover experienced a bug, first noted on October 5 that was marked as resolved on October 31 that may have caused some publishers’ traffic to fall for a short period of time, however the nature of Discover is that content is featured based on trending topics and users’ interests, so traffic from Discover may be less predictable when compared to Search. 

Get off the algorithm

While The Publisher Desk’s Misenti said he’s been noting steady declines in referral traffic for some publisher clients since July, a core update that took place in October this year created a bigger slip, though he did not share exactly how much.

“In the past, generally when these things happen, you can say, ‘oh, it’s about page performance [or] something concrete that you can put your finger on.’ I think what we’re struggling with right now is what is the advice to look at going forward,” said Misenti. 

Publishers don’t need to take any specific steps if they feel their content is not ranking as well as it used to following a Search update, according to the Google spokesperson, who added that they refer to the search engine’s published guidelines and blogs that indicate how publishers can create content that’s designed for readers, not search engines. 

What The Publisher Desk is telling its clients to do is to lean into owned and operated channels that allow them to build more direct relationships with readers via newsletters, apps, and events, which is a tactic that other publishers like BuzzFeed, BDG and World of Good Brands are doing in light of the social media referral decreases. 

The media exec said that search is still critical enough that the audience team will stay on top of trying to understand the algorithm updates that Google rolls out, but newsletters and the apps within its portfolio are going to take more priority in the new year given the declines they’re seeing.

What we’ve heard

“We disagree with the [U.S. Department of Justice’s] claims. We have no intention of selling or divesting this business. In fact, we’re focused more than ever on helping our publisher partners and our advertiser partners deliver great ROI and great monetization, especially in a time of economic and geopolitical and many other types of uncertainty that we’re all living in today.”

– Dan Taylor, Google’s vp of global advertising, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast.

3 Qs with iHeartMedia’s Will Pearson

Will Pearson, iHeartPodcasts president, believes the worst of the painful correction the podcast industry went through this year is over.

iHeartMedia plans to launch 10 to 12 shows a month next year, roughly the same cadence as this year and the “most effective” production schedule that allows for big promotional pushes for each show, according to Pearson. He said that, because the new shows are in different categories, they don’t compete with each other for ad revenue.

Pearson believes next year will be a “very strong year” for iHeartMedia’s podcast business. “We definitely expect growth as we go into next year… I think you’ll have a lot of [advertisers] coming into this space that have frankly never spent in podcasting before,” he said. In Q3 2023, iHeartMedia’s podcast revenue was $103 million, up 13% year over year, according to its latest earnings report. – Sara Guaglione

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

This podcast industry went through quite a correction with layoffs, canceled shows and production slowdowns, beginning at the start of this year. Do you think we’ll see a similar contraction next year?

I definitely don’t expect it to be that dramatic… If we talk about a correction, what we’re really talking about is just discovering the models that work and don’t work [in] a relatively young medium. And so you have lots of different companies trying different strategies. And I think this was a year where we learned a couple of the strategies that weren’t working – the exclusive distribution after paying talent frankly too much money. And so that’s the kind of correction that we saw and the whole industry felt that in different ways. 

In reality, you’ve got more people listening than ever [and they’re] spending more time than they ever have [with podcasts, with U.S. weekly listeners tuning in for almost an hour a day]. And you’ve got evidence that [podcast] advertising is more effective than almost any other medium. And so when we look at that, we realize, okay, there’s been a moment of reset but let’s make sure we remember these things are true.

What will be the top challenge for iHeart’s podcast business next year?

The biggest challenge, as it always is, is making sure that you create shows that really find their audience in the most effective way possible… We’re making sure that every show has a concept that is so clear and has a very real reason for existing. It’s not a space for you to just say, let’s pick celebrity X and launch a show because everybody knows that name… Every time we’re deciding whether to greenlight a show, we’re asking, what is this show really trying to accomplish, what is the mission of the show and who is going to listen to the show?

And what will be the biggest opportunity?

I think there are audiences [in] the emerging category [where] I think you will see real growth in next year, [like the kids and Gen Z categories]… so we’ve definitely got a good bit in store for next year. 
We have a very real focus… to make sure we were reaching underrepresented audiences in podcasting… The Hispanic market, for example, has grown over the last three years [by] 52%. And that has outpaced the rest of the industry. There has also seen substantial growth across Black podcast listeners to the point that there’s actually a higher percentage of the Black population listening to podcasts than the overall population… There will be more and more opportunities for great talent to come into the space… because there now is an audience that’s ready to support and help promote new shows.

Numbers to know

19: The number of days between G/O Media announcing that it was shutting down Jezebel on Nov. 9 and the feminist website being bought by Paste Magazine on Nov. 28. 

120: The number of staffers from The Washington Post who have opted to take a buyout so far. If the company doesn’t complete its goal of reducing the staff by 240 people via voluntary buyouts by Dec. 15 at the latest, interim CEO Patty Stonesifer said layoffs will come. 

127: The number of jobs that will be cut across BBC News and Current Affairs, while the company simultaneously adds 147 newly created digital roles.

151: The number of years that Popular Science produced a magazine. After shuttering the print version three years ago, the publisher announced that it was also ceasing to produce the digital version of the magazine as of this week.

What we’ve covered

Lacking financial incentives, sustainability remains a hope, not a promise, in digital advertising next year: 

  • Sustainability is currently up against a myriad of other challenges that face the digital advertising industry when it comes to which focus will take priority in 2024. 
  • And while the ultimate incentive to address the industry’s carbon emissions issue is pretty clear — ahem, global catastrophe — there are not currently sufficient incentives nor sufficiently coordinated efforts to rally advertisers, agencies, publishers and ad intermediaries around the issue.

Read more about the state of sustainability in the digital advertising industry here

How the inconsistent definition of click-through rates affects publishers and their advertisers: 

  • Email click-through rates would seem to be a simple metric for email service providers to calculate to help publishers and advertisers determine newsletter performance: Of the number of emails sent, what percentage of recipients clicked a link in the email. 
  • But instead, some email newsletter platforms report click-through rates (CTR) as click-to-open rates (CTOR).

Read the latest mythbuster on the measurement of email CTR here.

Events will be key for publishers’ revenues next year: 

  • According to Digiday+ Research surveys of over 350 publisher professionals, significantly more publishers are making money from events in the second half of the year, compared with the beginning of 2023.
  • Events climbed into the top five revenue sources when we accounted for where publishers said they get a large or very large portion of their revenues in our ranking. 

Learn more about the optimism that publishers have for events revenue in 2024 here.

Newsroom unions push for better terms as end-of-year mass media layoffs loom:

  • The latest wave of media layoffs this month has sparked newsroom unions from Condé Nast to G/O Media to publicly reprimand their companies’ leadership decisions.
  • Unionizing can’t prevent layoffs from happening, but unions can work to negotiate the terms of mass layoffs, including the number of people impacted and contract provisions that address severance packages.

See what media unions can and are doing amid this latest wave of layoffs here.

What we’re reading

Sports Illustrated was caught using fake, AI-generated writers: 

Futurism reported that one of Sports Illustrated’s “writers,” Drew Ortiz, doesn’t actually exist outside the confines of the publication. Without any social media accounts or publishing history to speak of, even “Ortiz’s” headshot is available to purchase on an AI-generated website. But when confronted about the fake writer, Futurism wrote that SI deleted everything versus owning up. 

The Washington Post stops advertising on X: 

The Post shared that it would stop advertising on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The decision was bolstered shortly after when X’s owner Elon Musk voiced support of the far-right Pizzagate conspiracy that alleged the Clintons and Democratic Party leaders ran a secret satanic child sex ring in a D.C. pizzeria known as Comet Ping Pong.

Nazis are joining Substack: 

Substack wants to play a bigger role in political coverage during the 2024 U.S. Presidential Election, but Nazis are growing their share of voice on the platform, The Atlantic reported. In the past year, more and more white supremacist, anti-Semitetic, neo-Confederate and explicitly Nazi newsletters have turned up on the email platform.  

Union journalists ask the NewsGuild to not make a statement supporting the ceasefire in Gaza: 

Journalists within The Wall Street Journal union, represented by the NewsGuild, asked the Guild to not make a statement in support of the ceasefire in Gaza. The journalists said they feared that the statement would look like the journalists themselves are taking sides on the matter and that would lead to reporters being blocked from briefings and speaking with officials, Semafor reported. The New York Times union reps are considering echoing that sentiment as well.  

Despite the two-week deadline, Forbes remains unsold:

The 28-year-old CEO of electric vehicle company Luminar Technologies, Austin Russell, was unable to get his $800 million bid together in time to purchase Forbes, even after receiving a two-week-long extension. Axios reported that Russell was blindsided by Indian investment firm Sun Group and other investors who did not wire the money they were contractually obligated to send.

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