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Upworthy's Traffic Is Still Headed Down. Blame Us, Not Facebook, Says Upworthy.

We grew on the inside, not the outside, says the viral content-spreader.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Earlier this year, when viral content spreader Upworthy saw its traffic decline, lots of people assumed that this was because of Facebook, which is tinkering with the way it surfaces other people’s stuff in its News Feed.

Not so, say Upworthy’s leaders: Traffic is an unpredictable thing, and it had shot up dramatically last fall, so it was reasonable for it to move around a bit.

But a couple months later, Upworthy’s traffic continues to head downward. It’s not falling off a cliff, but it is shrinking, according to comScore. Last month it had 10.7 million visitors, its lowest levels since August of last year — but still way ahead of where it was a year ago.

Here are comScore’s raw numbers for Upworthy, along with BuzzFeed, an even bigger viral operation, which also makes extensive use of Facebook as a traffic-maker (click to enlarge):

And here’s what they look like in a chart :

Buzzfeed - Upworthy

So what’s going on now? It’s our fault, says Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser. But it’s also a choice, he explains, via email:

“We’ve spent the last two months aggressively growing our editorial staff — we’ll be announcing more about that soon, but it’s meant that internal resources were devoted to hiring and training, rather than curating. That’s a trade we’re happy to make as an investment in our long-term future. There’s also a natural spikiness to traffic month-over-month (you can see a similar effect with other sites that focus on shareable content). Overall, we’re up 3x over April 2013, as you point out, and we feel good about the long-term trajectory.”

That’s the first time I’ve heard a publisher explain a traffic decline that way. So at a minimum, it’s interesting.

But surely, some part of this is because of Facebook, right? For what it’s worth, which is nothing, I’ve noticed that Upworthy posts seem to appear less frequently in my Feed; I’m seeing more Upworthy knockoffs like Distractify.

I sent Pariser another email, asking for his thoughts on Facebook. He answers a question I didn’t ask, which I assume is intentional.

Yeah, we were interested to see the recent news around Facebook’s focus on engaged time (see below for a snippet). That maps well to our focus on attention minutes — continuing to deliver folks content that they find really engaging and then want to share serves both our community and seems to align with Facebook’s goals.

[Via Slate:] When users click on a link in their news feed, Cathcart [head of product management for News Feed] says, Facebook looks very carefully at what happens next. “If you’re someone who, every time you see an article from the New York Times, you not only click on it, but go offsite and stay offsite for a while before you come back, we can probably infer that you in particular find articles from the New York Times more relevant — even if you don’t actually hit ‘like’ on them.”

Update: Here’s more from Pariser:

“We didn’t have a drop last fall. We had a huge spike and then returned to our normal growth line. There were four massive hits that added 30M+ page views on top of November’s baseline. When that spike ran its course, we returned to our previous growth curve. Newswhip did this post that included a chart showing our traffic and where the Facebook change happened. It’s also below. As you can see, we were already returning to our previous growth trend.

“There’s a second chart below that shows a longer view. We’re up 60% from the point right before the spike, and 3X year-over-year.”



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