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Social networks outdo search engines as the go-to resource for big news stories

by: Nancy Yoshihara |

Social media traffic from Facebook and Twitter exceeded referrals from search engines for top news stories in 2015, according to a new analysis by Parse.ly, which tracks data for publishers.   

“Since the digital publishing industry has been so focused on the growth of social as a medium for news distribution at the expense of search, we wanted to see if this held true for individual stories,” the company said in its blog.   

Parse.ly identified the top seven news stories (each had one “event” at its core), based on the most-read stories in the site tracker’s network of 400-plus publishers.  The data was adjusted based on site size so that the biggest sites would not dictate the trends. The top seven stories between January and October were: 

•      Charlie Hedbo, the January terrorist attack on the French satire magazine

•      Bobbi Kristina Brown, the daughter of Whitney Houston, found unconscious in January

•      Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao boxing match in May.

•      Rachel Dolezal, resignation of the president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington after her white parents said she was passing as black

•      Cecil the Lion shot to death in Zimbabwe by an American hunter in July

•      The Ashley Madison Agency dating website catering to people already in relationships is hacked in July

•      Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old, suspended from school in September for bringing an electronic clock he made 

Parse.ly studied the referral traffic from social and search sources.  Social media exceeded search referrals for all but two of the news events: the boxing match and Bobbi Kristina Brown.  However, the search referrals that initially dominated the breaking news of the boxing match, and Brown eventually gave way to social media after the initial news event. 

Four most interesting takeaways, according to Parse.ly, are: 

  1. Bobbi Kristina Brown: Shares (not search or social referrals) are a new form of sympathy. 
  2. Cecil the Lion: Viral story updates do not pay off (in pageviews) for digital publishers.
  3. The Ashley Madison Hack: Psychology helps to shape referral traffic patterns. 
  4. Ahmed Mohamed: Social outrage triggers social referrals to digital publishers.

Looking forward to 2016 based on data gathered for its latest Authority Report, Parse.ly said that social “conversations” next year would be driven by topics that bubble up (versus top-down, often publisher-driven stories). It suggests that sites that provide breaking news “should invest heavily in social” if they are not already doing so. 

Though search traffic to digital publishers is down, there is a bright spot. Search engines continue as the top referrers to evergreen articles. "Publishers who invest time and effort in long-form journalism can remain relevant by finding out who is reading their evergreen content and keeping tabs on existing audience’s preferences and past reading trends,” Parse.ly concluded in its blog post.


Nancy Yoshihara

Nancy Yoshihara is content manager at KDMC and its website with a focus on News for Digital Innovators and Tools, Tips
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