The 5 must-knows about how readers navigate news online, drawn from new Pew study
How do readers get to news sites? How long do they stay once there? And where do they go when they leave?
Just two months after releasing the mammoth State of the News Media 2011 report, my industrious friends at Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism have a detailed new report to answer those questions. Based on analysis of nine months of Nielsen data about the 25 largest U.S. news sites, the study confirms many truisms about online behavior but also yields some surprises.
Let's start with a finding that does both, and is a topic of little previous research, to my knowledge. When readers leave a news website, there are several main destinations:
- The top one is subdomains or related sites, for example exiting CNN.com for money.cnn.com.
- Second are sharing sites, both directly to places like Facebook and via widgets (like "add this") on news sites.
- Third is Google -- not Google search results or Google news but Google.com or specific Google tools like maps.
However, one place hardly anyone goes is advertising. Nielsen tracks destinations that turn up as few as five times. During the study period, the first nine months of 2010:
"In no case did five people click on a single ad on (a single) news site."
That is consistent with studies showing clickthrough rates on banners are lower than low -- 0.1 percent to 0.04 percent by various measures. You could also say, as many do, that the benefit, if any, of a banner or bigger display unit at an online news site, is the quick impression it makes without a click.
But the PEJ finding is a sort of exclamation point on how long the odds are that a reader will follow a banner into a deeper level of information at the advertiser's own site or better yet to a purchase.
There are some other findings of note.
What drives traffic to news websites?
While Google search, Google news, and other aggregators are the top way into news sites, "social media is rapidly becoming a competing driver of traffic."
- Facebook drives almost 8 percent of the traffic to Huffington Post and between 1 and 7 percent to the other 24 studied. Twitter was much weaker as a source of traffic to the big news sites during the first nine months of 2010, accounting for 1 percent of traffic or less at nearly all of them.
Though no longer a novelty, the venerable Drudge Report remains a huge driver of traffic. It ranked second or third on a majority of the sites studied, outpacing Facebook, and accounts for 15 percent of the traffic to the Washington Post site and 20 percent to the New York Post site.
Who drives traffic to news websites?
At all the sites, casual users who come only a few times a month account for most of the visitors. "On average, 77 percent of the traffic to the top 25 news sites came from users who visited just one or two times."
That varies by site. At USAToday.com, for instance, 85 percent of visitors came one to three times in a month; three quarters only once or twice.
An important minority of visitors, however, are what the PEJ report calls "power users," who visit 10 times or more per month. On average that group made up about 7 percent of users on the top 25 sites.
There is a big range there, too -- from 18 percent at CNN.com (the highest) to 1 percent for BingNews.com. This pattern also means, as has been widely reported, that only a modest number of users spend as much as an hour per month on a given site.
The report notes that one specialty site far outpaces any general news site in the loyalty of its "power users." At ESPN.com, 20 percent of visitors come 10 times a month or more and fully a quarter spend more than an hour a month on the site.
"These numbers" PEJ writes, "suggest that the ESPN digital network, whether driven by the topic matter, technical design, content quality or a combination, has found a formula for attracting and retaining an audience that most general news sites have not.
"General news by its nature may not elicit the same kind of passion as a single topic might, particularly sports, which are built around drama and have finality each day with game results. But there may well still be insights to glean from ESPN.com’s success.
"For one, it suggests that specialized sections or 'verticals' on specific topics could build loyalty if well enough executed. For another, it suggests that certain topics may be so deeply covered by specialists that general news sites would be best to devote their resources elsewhere."
One cheering note: News consumers on the websites studied are similar in age to Internet users overall, rather than skewing much older as do print newspaper readers and watchers of network television news.
Eight of the top 25 sites attracted more women than men, including the Huffington Post, which also had the greatest proportion of young adults. About one-third, or 32 percent of its audience, was composed of 18- to 34-year-olds. FoxNews.com attracted the greatest proportion of people over the age of 65.
The continuing power of the home page
At a time when there is increasing attention paid to individual articles as landing pages -- as people arrive there from search and social media -- it is interesting to note the staying power of the home page.
For 21 of the top 25 news sites PEJ studied, "the home page is the most viewed part of the site."
While it was dominant on almost all sites, the percentage of traffic it collected varied, with Reuters.com at the top with the home page garnering 79 percent of the traffic and AOLNews.com (now defunct) garnering 6 percent.
"The four sites where the home page was not No. 1, where presumably traffic relied more heavily on search, were: NYPost.com, Examiner.com, the DailyMail.co.uk and CBSNews.com. And for all but CBSNews.com, a specific article contained in the site garnered the most attention during the time studied. The top page within CBSNews.com is the video site."
Video was not a draw on the top 25 sites studied "even on the sites whose legacy product is affiliated with television, except CBSNews.com." Though five of the sites were associated with broadcast or cable networks, "online video was only one of the top 20 pages viewed on two of those, CNN.com where it ranked second and CBSNews.com where it ranked first."
While PEJ concludes video is "a distant part of the appeal of the Web," its performance on these news sites may be an inaccurate reflection of its overall online appeal, for example on a site like YouTube.
Disclosures: I have co-authored the newspaper chapter in PEJ's State of the News Media online yearbook all eight years it has been published and have signed on for next year. Poynter is currently under an 18-month contract to advise ESPN on news ethics issues and policies.
Julie Moos contributed to this report.