Every year there is a new, and seemingly existential threat to the news business. To date, news publishing has proved sufficiently adaptable to face up to the challenges, albeit not without stumbles. This year’s subject of search and referral traffic looks every bit as existential, not least since precisely 100% of respondents rated it as a concern, ranging from ‘moderate’ to ‘very significant.’ 

Digiday and Arc XP surveyed 115 publishers to understand how these traffic shifts are affecting them and the steps they’re taking to address challenges – all published in a new report, “The state of publisher traffic,” which can be downloaded here.

With Facebook no longer promoting news, Google introducing AI responses in search, and the cookie on its last legs, there is reason to take notice. The Digiday/Arc XP survey clearly highlights the dramatic changes to the traditional role of search as a traffic driver for publishers. As well as data about developments, it includes a consideration of potential upticks in traffic over the next year, and the factors redrawing the way publishers expect to generate traffic. Our respondents express their concerns, priorities, and the concrete steps they are taking to respond.

You’re not imagining it.

No, it’s not just you. The model of search and referral for publishers is changing and everyone is feeling the effects. 

Search, and in particular search as a revenue driver, is under threat. 100% of survey respondents said it was significant to their annual outcomes and the vast majority reported it as declining. 

80% said search traffic was down in 2023.
76% said that decline was in a range of between 1 and 20%.
2% reported a fall in the region of 20 to 40%, and a further 2% said they’d seen a fall of between 40 and 60%.

The impact of that on ROI simply can’t be shrugged off. 

The decline in search driven traffic has knock-on effects on referrals generally, but that drop isn’t limited exclusively to change in search engines. Across the board, publishers saw all referral traffic declining in 2023. Seventy-eight percent of respondents saw referral traffic dip in 2023 over 2022, with 75% saying the decrease ranged from 1%-20% year over year. That suggests nothing less than a fundamental reshaping of traffic flow, and one that risks leaving publishers out of the loop.

It could bounce back – but don’t hold your breath

The key word here is ‘bounce.’ It’s an election year; a multiple election year with the EU, USA, South Africa, UK, and India on the bill, which is a big factor in a muted optimism expressed by publishers that there will be a rebound in traffic in 2024. In fact, 93% of respondents expect traffic to rebound in 2024.  

However, there are two key caveats. The first is that this is a bounce, not a trend, and the second is that even amongst those expecting an improvement, 80% said they expected an improvement of between 1 and 20%. Meaning that compared to recorded traffic declines from the same survey, the improvement is expected to perhaps replace the lost traffic of the previous year, and that only temporarily.


What are publishers doing to counter this?

As mentioned before, the news business has proved more adaptable than its critics sometimes like to acknowledge. So what are news publishers doing in response to what may be not only a fall in referral traffic, but a complete change in the model of traffic gathering?

The number one response, at 81%, is a renewed drive to video, particularly live-streamed and long-form, with various social media platforms being targeted. Short-form video, including TikTok, was the reply of 70%, and 78% of respondents replied that social media presence in one form or another was their main response to the challenge.

If you’ve been in the industry for more than a few years, you’ll probably remember a number of moments when video was proposed as the way forward. And wasn’t.

Just like the advice being pounded into publishers’ cortexes around the adoption of generative AI, i.e. figure out where and how it benefits your journalism and bottomline, the same still applies to video. Know what you want to achieve with your video strategy, especially around monetisation and engagement. What makes sense to build direct relationships on your own sites, with readers and advertisers. Long-form video would seemingly make sense, whereas short-form social video can be deployed as more of a funnelling approach. In other words, while publishers continue to target social platforms significantly, they should proceed with caution in building long-term reliance there, especially for revenue.

An eye to the future

Mindful (hopefully) of the above point, video content comes out on top as the priority (69%) for news publishers improving referral traffic in 2024. Likewise and again in the context of the above, it is telling that cross-channel promotion has risen to equal the once all-important SEO as a key strategy for success. ‘Diversifying traffic sources’ might sound like an evergreen wish for publishers, but in the light of changes to a decades old model of search engine referrals, cookies, and social media promotion, it is probably more realistic to see it as a solid 50% of respondents acknowledging that it is time to look for new approaches. 

Which makes it all the more interesting that some tried and trusted approaches are still very much in the running. If you lump together the number of publishers looking to expand their newsletter offerings, with those committing to launch newsletters for the first time, you have over a third of all respondents who feel that tailored newsletters are a priority in response to the new rules of the game. 

AI – speaking of cautionary tales …

With 81% of respondents ranking AI’s role as a moderately significant concern regarding search/referral traffic, and 18% as a very significant concern, the technology is no doubt top of mind for news publishers’ going forward. In fact, 71% of publishers say they’ve taken steps to address the impact of the newest iterations of artificial intelligence on their traffic within the past six months.


You can read more findings in the full Digiday and Arc XP report, ”The state of publisher traffic.” which is available for download here. 


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