Stat Rant: Does Facebook Trump Google For News & Can’t We Measure Twitter Correctly?

Earlier this week, Hitwise put out stats suggesting that Facebook is beating Google and Twitter when it comes to driving traffic to news sites. I dug a little deeper, and I beg to differ. Along the way, some pokes at the need to more digging into stats in general.

The Hitwise blog post reported that Twitter accounted for only 0.14% of “upstream” visits to the “News & Media” sites category last week, far beyond similar stats for Facebook and Google. Here are all of them compared, based on that blog post:

  • Facebook: 3.64%, the 3rd biggest source of visits to News & Media sites
  • Google News: 1.27%, the 11th biggest source of visits
  • Twitter: 0.14%, the 39th source of visits

Google News Versus Google

My first issue with these stats is that Google News — only one small slice of Google — is being compared to all of Facebook. That doesn’t seem a fair comparison. Unless Facebook has a Facebook News area (it doesn’t), it seems like you need to compare “whole” Facebook to “whole” Google when discussing who drives traffic.

As it turns out, traffic from “whole” Google leaves Facebook in the dust, as a driver of traffic to news sites. So doYahoo and MSN. If you count traffic from any Google domain (or any Yahoo domain or MSN domain), the stats work out like this:

  • Google sites, 20.16%
  • Yahoo sites, 18.92%
  • MSN sites: 8.76
  • Facebook: 3.64%

Specifically, Hitwise looked at the top 100 sites sending traffic to News & Media sites last week, then added up all those that were run by Google or Yahoo or MSN to give the “whole” figures shown above. Each of the first three was listed as “Google properties” or “Yahoo properties” or “MSN properties” but Facebook was not listed that way. However, as Facebook run virtually everything I know of within Facebook.com, my assumption is that the Facebook figure is for “whole” Facebook as well. It’s not clear if MSN includes all Mircrosoft properties such as Bing or not.

Hitwise also sent figures — and rankings — based on the main domain of each company. These were:

  • Google.com, 16.50%, ranked 1st
  • Yahoo.com, 9.40%, ranked 2nd
  • Facebook.com: 3.64%, ranked 3rd

NOTE: Earlier I had stats of 11.03% and 10.98% for Google and Yahoo respectively. These weren’t for the traffic that Google and Yahoo sent to news sites — which is what I had asked for — but instead either the amount of visits Google and Yahoo themselves receive from all sites or that they send to all sites. That caused me to changed the headline of this article from “Stat Rant: Google Actually Trumps Facebook For News & Can’t We Measure Twitter Correctly?” to “Stat Rant: Does Facebook Trump Google For News & Can’t We Measure Twitter Correctly?” until I could get better clarity from Hitwise. Now that they’ve sent me the correct numbers, Google indeed trumps Facebook even more than I originally thought, as a news driver.

Google News Isn’t Google Reader

If the earlier stats got you thinking that Facebook was the new killer news “app” versus Google, there’s more of that today with another post from Hitwise. This one talks about how Facebook users are more “loyal” to news sites than those coming from Google News. We’re told:

  • 78% of Facebook users were returning visitors to the top 5 print media sites for the week ending March 6
  • 67% of Google News users were returning visitors
  • 77% of Facebook users were returning visitors to the top 5 broadcast media sites
  • 64% of Google News users were

The headline — “Facebook Visitors Come Back Again And Again” — is meant to follow up on what author Heather Hopkins encountered in feedback when she posted a few weeks ago about Facebook as potentially being the web’s biggest feed reader (and this despite Facebook actually making it kind of hard to use it as a feed reader). Some said “big deal” if Facebook drives traffic. You want loyal readers, people who will come again and again.

So see — Facebook does have loyal visitors! But then again, you kind of expect that from Facebook versus Google News. In Facebook, you can be a fan of a news organization, effectively subscribing to it for updates. That’s all designed to keep you coming back. Google News has over 20,000 sources, and you can’t subscribe to any of them. If you want to be a subscriber through Google, you have to use Google Reader. So what’s the loyalty rate for that?

No idea. That’s probably because the last time Heather looked, when doing her post about Facebook as a feedreader, Google Reader drove only a tiny amount of visits to News & Media sites: 0.1%. Google News sends more traffic, so it has becomes the comparison choice, even if it’s the wrong one, in my opinion.

Heather did cite in today’s report how Google overall is, in terms of loyalty:

I’ve been encouraged by some readers to include Google.com in this series. In most cases, Google.com is the #1 source of traffic to these sites. Interestingly, visitors from Google are less likely to be returning visitors than average for either Google News or Facebook.

No specific figure, but that’s not surprising. As with Google News, people can’t “subscribe” to a source in regular Google. They discover sources that way. And often when discovering them, they have little need to go back to Google.

Revisiting The Search Gap

This phenomenon is something I called the “search gap” back in 2001. Pick your survey, and you’ll discover that searching is among the top internet activity out there. And yet, look at web site stats, and search engine traffic often is not the top traffic driver. Why is there a big gap between what people do and the traffic search engines send? Because once you’ve found a trusted site (including a news site), you may not need to search for it again. As I wrote:

Let’s say you want to buy a particular book. You do a search at your favorite search engine and find a page from Amazon about the book. You visit the Amazon site, like the price and information you are shown, so purchase the book from them. Thanks to search engines, Amazon has gained a customer.

A month later, you need another book. Remembering your positive experience at Amazon, you go directly to the web site rather than using a search engine to find it. Thus, your second visit isn’t credited to search engines. However, it would have never occurred if you hadn’t found Amazon via search engines the first time AND had a favorable impression of the site.

So, once people find trusted sites, they return to them directly for particular needs …. However, because our needs are wide-ranging, we are constantly searching for new things — which accounts for the overall high usage of search engines that other studies find.

It would be a mistake to interpret the search gap as meaning that search engines are not important. They remain a top way users will locate web sites initially and so cannot be ignored. Instead, the real lesson of the search gap is the age-old adage that first impressions count. Make a good impression when people first come to your site via search engines, and they may come back directly to you in the future.

So the Facebook versus Google loyalty stats? They’re interesting, but they’re not necessarily comparable, given that users in both places may be doing radically different things.

Twitter Is Not Twitter.com

Another big issue I had with the traffic to news sites post was that it tried to compare Twitter as a traffic driver by using stats that measure only Twitter.com. That’s a big flaw to me, because so much Twitter activity happens off the site itself. People interact with Twitter through third party applications, or by seeing tweets in things like Google Real Time result or posted on individual blogs.

If you don’t measure these things, you aren’t properly measuring the Twitter ecosystem as a traffic driver — perhaps grossly undercounting it. The posts below go into more depth about this:

I asked Hitwise about this and got back:

We are definitely looking into expanding our data and measuring traffic from apps/mobile.

That’s good, but it doesn’t help a company like Twitter now, which gets painted as some type of weak player compared to Facebook. If the stats don’t allow a fair comparison, then don’t make a comparison. Say that you can’t measure the two.

Note that Hitwise isn’t the only one with this issue. I’ve seen plenty of stats from various places that suggest that Twitter isn’t being measured correctly. It’s not a Hitwise-only problem.

As a sidenote, Chitika has new data out that doesn’t have traffic figures but does try to measure the intent of what people from various social networks are after, from when they leave those networks. News is tops to those from Twitter, though exactly what “Twitter” is and how this is measured isn’t said. Nor is it clear whether something like “Tech” might include tech news:

  • Twitter: 47% head to news sites
  • Facebook: 28% head to news
  • Digg: 18% head to news
  • MySpace: News not in top five categories

Referrer Vs Upstream Traffic

One proxy might be to look at the amount of traffic that Bit.ly sends to News & Media sites. Bit.ly is the default URL shortener for tweeted URLs. Regardless of where you encounter a link in the Twitter ecosystem — on Twitter.com itself, in a third party app and so on — many of these will route you through Bit.ly. That means measuring Bit.ly as a driver to News & Media sites might give you a better idea of how Twitter is doing.

I asked for those stats, but I didn’t get the right ones from Hitwise. Instead, they sent me a chart showing how many people go to Bit.ly after Twitter. I’ll try again on this. But that also brings up a key difference to how Hitwise measures what drives traffic and what analytics tools do.

NOTE: Since I wrote this, I’ve received the stats. In Feb. 2010, Bit.ly sent 0.0043% of traffic to News & Media sites. I suspect that means it’s not a very good proxy for Twitter’s traffic overall.

Most browsers (Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome and so on) are configured to tell a web server the last page they viewed before they arrived at a web site. This is called the “referrer,” though often it’s called the referral source as well. Referrer information allows site owners to know the search terms used to reach their web sites. They allow them to tell if Facebook is a big traffic driver, or Google or other sites with a good degree of accuracy in many cases.

Hitwise isn’t reporting referrer information. It doesn’t have this. Instead, it depends primarily on data through deals it has with internet service providers. It can see from this data what people do before and after they go to a particular web site. The before is called “upstream” traffic and the after is called “downstream.”

This isn’t as precise as referrer data. Consider this. You have a browser window that opens automatically to Facebook, when you start. You scan your Facebook feed, don’t click on anything, then decide to do a search for the iPad. You type in Google into your browser’s address bar, do a search from the Google home page when it loads, see a link to Apple and click on that.

Hitwise records things this way:

Facebook –> Google –> Apple

In reality, here’s what happened:

Facebook

Google –> Apple

Facebook drove no traffic to Google. But in Hitwise’s system, since it was the last site someone saw before Google, it would be counted as an “upstream” driver.

By the way, if you want to play with this more yourself, try this site. If you click on that link, you should see that the “referer” box will get filled with the URL of this article you’re reading. If you then copy and past the URL and go to it directly, you’ll get no “referer” shown.

Looking Beyond The Stats

In general, I’ve felt there’s been an increasing push from various places — not just with Hitwise — to punch out stats. These get quickly reported often without much analysis. From this, we end up with facts that often aren’t really true.

For example, we all know from stats earlier this year that 44% of Google News readers simply scan headlines without going to sites, right? Right?

That’s not actually true, as my 44% Of Google News Readers Only Scan Headlines? Maybe Not! article gets into. But despite this, I keep hearing that stat repeated over and over again.

Meanwhile, Facebook is once again reported to be the most visited US web site, beating Google. But then again, that’s not measuring all of Google, such as Gmail — so is Facebook really bigger? (See Hitwise: Facebook (Sort Of) More Visited Than Google On Christmas for more on this).

In addition, Facebook auto-refreshes its pages. If I leave a Facebook page up, I’m probably generating “visits” all day long even though I’m not always looking at that page. Does that skew comparing to sites that don’t auto-refresh?

There’s no easy solution to much of this. Stats have been glossed over, twisted or had comparison issues as long as we’ve had stats. I can be as guilty as anyone of pushing a stat quickly without delving into it more. Maybe the trend is no better or worse than ever. But I’ll be trying to dig even more doing forward, and I hope others will do the same.

For related discussion, see here on Mediagazer.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Facebook | Features: Analysis | Google: News | Stats: Popularity | Top News | Twitter

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

    Thanks for highlighting the fact that Hitwise was comparing Google News with Facebook and Twitter, and not Google itself. This is a tremendously important difference which has already led many to misinterpret these results. Among news-savvy SEOs it is well-known that the Google News vertical within the Google web results is the primary driver of mass traffic, and not Google News itself (not to mention news sites within web search).

    It would have been very interesting indeed to see Facebook and Twitter traffic to news sites compared to Google. One wonders whether or not this would have made for such a juicy blog post headline.

  • http://www.e-business.ie ann_donnelly

    Great post, Danny! Unfortunately people are going to remember the headlines that made it all over the net and offline news because of those stats. I was nearly one of the guilty ones that just hit RT when I saw it, but then common sense did tell me that there was something not quite right about it. Thanks for digging further.

  • http://www.nexcerpt.com/ nexcerpt

    Oh, the ~irony~ of reading this article at this moment! I had just arrived from this clickable image: http://images.fastcompany.com/upload/underload-7.png It explains so much of the statistical numbing down of society! Would Tufte swoon — or vomit? lolz

  • andreaBG

    I came here via Matt Cutts, Twitter.com, after navigating to Twitter from a tab that was open to FB, so, you can give Twitter the win for the hit. Yeah, Hitwise’s methodology is a bit um, wrong.

    As a pretty hardcore FB user and also a news junkie, my read of the initial headlines was “wtf are they talking about?”. I use FB for just about everything *but* news. It sucks for news. Maybe my friend list of 800+ just sucks, and everybody else’s friend list includes tons of riveting news links, but mostly I have Farmville gifts and new baby pictures in my feed. ;)

  • http://BestSellerAuthors.com WarrenWhitlock

    I can’t remember how I got here.. there is so much evidence that show we don’t know that my head is spinning

    One thing is certain, the trend chasing headline grabbing reporter out there don’t hold a candle to the thinking analysis we get from Danny.

  • http://www.sweetspotmarketing.com kevinpike

    So many ways to get news today… I came here via email RSS.

    Great post Danny. I hope this article gets as much news as the HitWise post.

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