Is The End Nigh For Your Facebook Traffic?

Chris CrumSocial Media

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Facebook is quickly becoming a major force in online video. Over the past year or so, brands have posted more and more video content, and it has now become even bigger than YouTube for sharing videos on Facebook, according to SocialBakers.

There is some concern that as brands embrace Facebook as their main channel for video marketing, however, they're giving up control of their content, and could actually find themselves left out in the cold. This line of thinking goes even beyond video with some afraid the era of getting web traffic from Facebook is coming to a close.

Are you concerned that Facebook traffic could dry up? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Facebook released a post this week talking about its growth as a video provider. Here's what the company says it means for content creators:

The most important thing to remember when creating video for Facebook is that it will be a part of News Feed. As a creator, you should be conscious that people will discover your video in News Feed next to a photo from a friend or a status update from a relative. Your video needs to fit in, and it needs to be something that your audience will want to watch and share.

With the launch of auto-play and the surge in mobile use, it’s also important to focus on posting videos that grab people from the first frame of video. Shorter, timely video content tends to do well in News Feed. Keep in mind that auto-play videos play silently in News Feed until someone taps to hear sound, so videos that catch people’s attention even without sound often find success. Emphasis added.

An article on the subject from John Herman at The Awl is getting some attention. He discusses how Facebook is more interested in hosting content than sending links to outside pages. He says Facebook views links to these pages as a "problem to be solved". Publishers who upload videos to Facebook, he says, are no longer publishers, but producers. Producers for Facebook.

"This is where the theoretical tension between Facebook, which has been lavishing websites with traffic in return for their ability to fill its News Feeds with interesting links, and publishers, which have either accepted or pursued the audience that Facebook occasionally shares with them, becomes material," he writes. "Embedded videos didn’t used to play on Facebook—you had to leave the page to visit the site that published (or embedded) them in the first place. Next, embedded YouTube videos were allowed entrance, proved popular, and made the old style of video-watching seem strange and inefficient, while still depending on, and benefiting, an outside publisher (Google, with its partners). When Facebook privileged its own videos to auto-play, it made embedded videos feel out-of-place. Facebook-native videos, which display their view counts inside the frame, are often shockingly popular, even by YouTube standards. This is the last stage in a gradual correction."

"'What the Shift to Video Means,' then, is that one major type of media is being pulled in-house by Facebook; it means that Facebook is not satisfied merely facilitating the spread of other publishers’ products," he adds. "It’s not that such an arrangement is unprofitable—Facebook has made a great deal of money selling ads against links to media originally published elsewhere—it’s that the new vision, in which Facebook is not just theoretically but practically constitutes the entire internet, is potentially more profitable. Publishers, in Facebook’s view, are middlemen."

Herman goes on to speculate that Facebook wishes to become a new YouTube not only for video, but for "text and audio and whatever else. "It already did this with games," he notes. "All the things we link to on Facebook now, Facebook could conceivably host."

And in case you're not sure how serious Facebook is about video, the company just bought QuickFire Networks to improve its video infrastructure.

Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab points to Herman's post, and asks, "Is publishers' Facebook free ride coming to an end?"

"Maybe Facebook is the new AOL after all — though AOL was eaten from the outside in, and Facebook is trying to eat the web from the inside out," he concludes.

The scariest part about this scenario for publishers is the idea of Facebook hosting links the way it does video. What if to get Facebook visibility, your content has to actually be hosted on Facebook, and Facebook referrals to your website become a thing of the past?

Right now, Facebook dominates the social media landscape when it comes to referrals. Sure, the "free ride" has already all but ended when it comes to the reach of Facebook Page posts, but when it comes to website traffic, Facebook sends way more than any other social service. In fact, even as Facebook referrals climb, referrals from other sites decline. In Shareaholic's Q3 Social Media Traffic Report, only Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+ showed any year-over-year growth in referrals at all, but even Pinterest's and Google+'s growth were far smaller than Facebook's.

That picture might start looking a lot different if things unfold in the manner Herman and others are suggesting. If your website traffic relies solely on Facebook traffic, you might want to start putting a back-up plan in place.

Back in October, The New York Times reported that Facebook was considering a program in which publishers would send pages to Facebook that would "live inside the social network's mobile app and be hosted by its servers". These would load quickly with ads sold by Facebook, and the revenue would be shared, the report said.

"That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike," NYT's David Carr wrote. "If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns."

"For traditional publishers, the home page may soon become akin to the print edition — nice to have, but not the primary attraction," he wrote.

I'm not so sure this hasn't happened for the most part anyway. Social media and search have long provided alternative paths to content. Homepages are nice to have, but is that where the majority of people are entering your site?

Still, content hosted on the social network is another ballgame altogether.

Even before the New York Times report last year, Facebook had already begun serving some mobile users links within its own app rather than sending users to the page within their default web browser. You might have clicked a link from the News Feed to a Huffington Post article, for example, and been taken to that article without leaving the app. Granted, Facebook did provide an option to open the content in your device's default browser if you clicked the right icon.

There were reports of the feature being offered to some users at least as early August, though more seemed to start noticing in November.

In case you're wondering whether these links opening within the Facebook app has any impact on referral counts (remember the DiggBar uproar of 2009?), apparently page views register like they would for any browser.

Interestingly, while Facebook seems to want users to be able to open links more quickly by doing so within its own app, some have found the feature to have the opposite effect, with pages taking longer to load than if they opened in Chrome, which is bound to be the default browser for many users.

Is the concern over Facebook overblown, or do you see a legitimate threat to referrals in the not too distant future? Tell us what you think.

Images: SocialBakers, Shareaholic

Chris Crum

Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.