Nov 10, 2015 · 6 minutes


This is going to shock absolutely no one who has ever built a gaming app, or any app that relied on Facebook’s Newsfeed to propagate throughout the world.

Mark Pincus, just skip this post. Anyone involved with Viddy – you too. Those guys who did iLike back in the day? Keep on moving. Don Graham, you’ve got better things to read. You lived this already.

OK, only total noobs or people with absolutely no short-term business memory left? Great. Here’s the headline: According to Digiday, Facebook’s traffic to top publishers has fallen 32% over the course of this year, causing everyone in media to freak the fuck out.

In the parlance of Silicon Valley app makers: They’ve been “Zucked over.” Fun fact: That term emerged way back in 2008, just 18 months after the platform was launched and Facebook first tweaked the rules, tanking businesses along with it.

Hamish McKenzie did a killer investigation for Pando into all the times people had been “Zucked over,” back in 2013. The story hasn’t changed.

From Digiday, today:

Referral traffic (desktop + mobile) to the top 30 Facebook publishers (as defined by their reliance on Facebook) plunged 32 percent from January to October, according to SimpleReach, a distribution analytics company. The more reliant the publisher on Facebook, the bigger the hit: Among the top 10, the drop was a steeper 42.7 percent.

Those results line up with those from social traffic tracker SimilarWeb, which looked at the 50 biggest publishers in Facebook from January to September. It found that The Huffington Post’s Facebook traffic fell 60.1 percent, to 16 million. Fox News’ dropped 48.2 percent to 4.3 million. BuzzFeed’s Facebook visits fell 40.8 percent to 23.7 million. Across all 50, the biggest drop in traffic in the period took place from January to February, when publishers’ Facebook traffic fell an average of 75 percent. There was a smaller but also significant drop from March to April.

...They say Facebook doesn’t communicate directly with them about their traffic fluctuations, and it’s hard to isolate publishers’ own actions from things Facebook does that might affect traffic performance. What worked six months ago to drive shares doesn’t necessarily work today. ..

The data seems to serve as a cautionary tale for publishers that have hitched their wagon to Facebook, only to get hit when the social giant’s traffic firehose slows to a trickle.

From Hamish’s piece (which Facebook insiders screamed was grossly unfair at the time):

Over the years, Facebook has exhibited a pattern of capriciousness that has eroded developers’ faith in the idea that the platform could be a stable environment on which to build a business. Whether it be through too-sweeping rule changes that penalized trustworthy apps for the sins of a few bad actors, or disregard for expectations about what it would or wouldn’t build itself, Facebook created a situation that, for many, proved untenable.

For many, not in the news business that is. Beset by even bigger problems, media companies have been all too eager to go where developers fear to.

Also from Hamish’s piece:

The motivation for these changes was pure: Facebook wanted to protect its user experience. But it was making up the rules as it went along. In attempting to mitigate the damage caused by a few, it ended up punishing the many. The upshot was that Facebook compromised the openness of its platform.

This isn’t even the first time it’s happened to news sites:

Last year, Facebook altered how it displayed stories from news organizations’ “social readers,” leaving publications like the Guardian and the Washington Post with significantly less Facebook traffic than they had previously enjoyed -- quite a blow for the Post, especially considering that its owner, Don Graham, sits on Facebook’s board and was one of Zuckerberg’s first mentors. Once trumpeted as the centerpieces to Zuckerberg’s vision of “frictionless sharing,” the news readers suddenly found themselves in a ditch. Fed up, the Guardian ended up killing off its reader last December.

This will likely get even worse as the Internet – and Facebook – evolve. When the shift to the mobile app economy happened, startups (and news sites) lost their ability to drive traffic via search, and in their frustration with the lack of an obvious method to game the app store, everyone started spending more to acquire users. (Hence the swarm of mega rounds, death of companies like Homejoy, and wide concern about negative gross margins and high burn rates throughout Silicon Valley.)

As Mark Zuckerberg has said himself, the only thing people do more on their phones than engage in social networking is messaging. That’s why Facebook has spent tens of billions of dollars dominating nearly all the major mobile messaging apps – from its $19 billion purchase of Whatsapp to its utter dominant roll out of Facebook Messenger. Only Snapchat remains as a prominent non-Facebook major messaging app. (Jeremiah Owyang has a great comparison of Facebook at four years old and Snapchat at four years old here. All the more evidence of what I’ve written before about the importance of Snapchat ditching silly content experiments like Discover and going all in on its platform. It’s the only company that could actually threaten Facebook right now. That’s a far bigger opportunity than pushing media to millennials – Vice’s huge valuation notwithstanding.)  

As the mobile Web becomes increasingly about messaging, it becomes even harder for startups to penetrate… and even more controlled by Facebook.  

And – already – one speculated cause for the decline is a preference for user-generated content in “the algorithm,” as Facebook increasingly takes on YouTube. For the billionth time: Facebook always does what’s best for Facebook. And Facebook is one of the most aggressively adaptive mega-tech companies we’ve ever seen. Facebook is essentially pivoting to a messaging company before our eyes, from the position of total dominance in social media, no less. The one thing you can count on is that Facebook will constantly change and evolve in ways you didn’t see coming.

As I wrote back when publishers were trying to figure out whether they should “trust” Facebook by agreeing to publish directly to the newsfeed or not: No, you shouldn’t trust Facebook. But major publishers reliant on massive traffic will likely have to play along in some way. To wit: According to Digiday, the decrease is hitting those who are still trying to rely on links to drive traffic the hardest. Those who play by Facebook’s rules appear to be getting rewarded, as nearly everyone speculated would happen at the time of these deals in the name of “user friendliness.” After all, the stories published directly to Facebook load faster.

One notable exception in the study was Refinery29, whose traffic from Facebook actually rose 27% over the period. Our final PandoMonthly in New York is this Thursday with the co-founders and co-CEOs of Refinery29. We’ll ask what they’ve done right… and whether they’re nervous. (Get your tickets here! Members attend for free.)