‘Sideways’ visitors to news sites are less engaged, Pew finds


People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter “sideways,” according to a new study by the Pew Research Journalism Project. People arriving via Facebook and search stay a shorter time and view fewer pages. Pew’s data “suggest that turning social media or search eyeballs into equally dedicated readers is no easy task,” Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz and Kenneth Olmstead write.

That finding was consistent across the 26 news websites whose comScore data Pew examined, even BuzzFeed and NPR.org, “which have an unusually high level of Facebook traffic,” the report says.

The “connection a news organization has with any individual coming to their website via search or Facebook seems quite limited,” the report says. “For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

BuzzFeed is an outlier among the sites Pew studied: “It is not built around building a loyal, returning audience,” the authors write. “It may well be a completely different audience from one story to the next.” About half of BuzzFeed’s desktop/laptop traffic comes from Facebook, the report says, compared with 7 percent for The New York Times. BuzzFeed gets “low engagement, but high volume” from those readers.


Pew looked primarily at desktop/laptop traffic because the metrics “comScore (and other web analytics firms) have established to track mobile behavior are, at this point, much smaller” than those that track desktop/laptop users. Further complicating analysis, news organizations may have mobile sites or apps through which mobile readers come to them, as well as via mobile browsers.

“Nevertheless, the analysis that Pew Research was able to conduct on the mobile data suggests an engagement pattern similar to that seen in the desktop/laptop space,” the report says. And most mobile users, Pew found, come in via mobile browser.

One interesting finding: The conservative publications Pew studied, among them Breitbart, The Washington Times and the Blaze, “got 22% of their traffic from Facebook referrals – far more than any other grouping of news sites.”

Conservative sites also benefited from “significantly large percentage of traffic from other news websites,” Pew found. Breitbart “got 42% of its traffic that way.”

Not far behind, at 33%, was Washingtontimes.com, the legacy print site with a conservative tilt. This inbound traffic from other news sites suggests news outlets like Breitbart and The Washington Times may be linked to on the pages of other like-minded media outlets.

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  • West Seattle Blog

    We have worked very hard to ensure our community understands that our main publication is the WSB website, NOT our Facebook page. We appreciate social media and the fact that many people use it; we were relatively early adopters (2007). But we continue to emphasize the website as the mothership – we link a limited number of stories from Facebook, as well as using it to post material that might not necessarily merit a standalone story on our website. We’ve seen other community news outlets default to Facebook, with a resulting plummet in Web traffic. A key reason NOT to focus on Facebook, for example, let alone publishing much original material there, is the poor quality of its searchability – just try finding something you posted there (its increased search-engine visibility has not helped with that) – so anything archived there and there alone is pretty much lost. Maybe not to you, but certainly to your community. Also, if you sell advertising so that community businesses can be showcased to your readers, but you are pointing readers to a place where that advertising does not appear … that’s a disservice to your community businesses. By the way, given Facebook’s continued demolition of the organic reach it allows non-paying customers, it’s not even that great a place for referrals if you do NOT happen to be the kind of “OMG LOOK AT HOW THIS ADORABLE KITTEN SAVED AN INCREDIBLY CUTE BABY” website this story mentions. – Tracy