A hidden traffic crisis among the internet’s biggest names
Mon 25 Apr 2016
Whilst browsing through Alexa’s traffic estimations for those sites which have decided to block adblockers last week, I noticed a persistent downward trend among some of the biggest players wherever I looked over the last 12 months outlined in the graphs, and was curious to see if it would repeat throughout Alexa’s index of the top 500 sites.
For all but the largest western interests, it does. The landscape of internet attention seems to be undergoing a tectonic shift in this period, particularly (though not exclusively) for online publishers, who are currently being corralled into a wholly different set of closed metrics by Facebook’s publisher schemes, and various other attempts to move content away from the ‘free range’ of the internet into the sought-after eyes on social media.
Firstly, for amusement, let’s look at who is not suffering. A ‘flat line’ may not be great news in a hospital, but in the field of site metrics it’s a sign that traffic and public interest has been turned up to 11, and is pretty much stuck there. For the likes of Google and Facebook, there’s scant indication that these are even progress graphs:
A move down the top 100 reveals that some of its largest long-term residents seem to be following a similar downward pattern in terms of net reach:
These properties represent some of the largest and most influential names of the last 15 years, all apparently in a traffic free-fall. Many are looking to the problem; news aggregator Slashdot was sold in January of this year to BIZX, LLC, and has taken a more populist stance, similar to the style of Hacker News, but as yet with no encouraging result; Wired began blocking adblockers in February in an attempt to get better value out of its remaining audience; the empire online website continues to make innovations, but seems to be matching the decline of the print version.
Time has been struggling to slow the diminishing sales of its print edition – ballast which its long-time rival Newsweek shed permanently at the end of 2012, and which seems to have allowed for upward movement, certainly this year:
Why declining net-traffic doesn’t automatically equate to failure
Some of the sites listed which are apparently in decline are so established and venerable that they could be considered ‘Your father’s websites’, and therefore subject to the fickle vacillations of the internet, which loves novelty and new voices. Yet there are many equally (or more) ancient domains doing just fine in terms of net-traffic.
It’s quite possible that declining net-traffic is symptomatic of the latest publishing revolution – the headlong rush to escape any externally-measurable metrics.
God knows, publishers never wanted their success to be estimable by outside sources, since business success in general is a confidence game where publicly known variables are often as unhelpful as they are useful. Print publications have had to endure public circulation figures, in the form of ABC and other systems, for a long time, while floated companies have taken the risk of swapping anonymity for the promise of stock market success.
And so the latest impetus is to get the statistics genie back into the boardroom and away from prying eyes, with the move to dedicated mobile apps whose internal reporting is not only a business secret, but incredibly granular. I have personally seen dedicated app systems for major names making the print>app transition which are capable of recording dwell time on individual articles, revisits, complete user navigation history, and much more…all recorded locally on the portable device and quietly fed back into private statistical ecosystems when the device is online.
Beyond this impetus, specific native advertising, usually for the highly lucrative and growing field of events, can monetise apparently dwindling audiences so that they are more rewarding in their reduced form than they ever were when in greater numbers and not clicking on network-served banner ads – the digital equivalent of reviving a pub’s fortune by serving food.
Thirdly, declining domain traffic does not reflect positive activity on the publication’s social networks, such as increase in subscriber numbers in a period where some of the most important content may not appear on the domain at all, but instead in its social networks.
Even in the case of domains which were founded on the basis of high attendance, including social aggregators such as Buzzfeed, some of the most important and signal traffic around the domain may be flowing through resources which are secondary, hard to read by third parties, and which help to form an increasingly fractured picture of just how well a particular resource is doing. The addition of app-specific subdomains can also make important traffic apparently disappear from public view.
This increasingly disparate array of diverse statistical sources helps companies keep their data secret, but also makes it difficult to laud their own successes. But at this time both the major contenders and the new metrics systems are in flux, and all we can guess from the alarming drops in the graphs above is that the lost ground has been made up in other more innovative areas for which there may currently be no public metrics available. The true picture of decline may actually be the decline of network traffic as an indices of success, as publishers rush to secrete themselves in walled gardens.
The rise of Asia on the internet
Another predominant trend looking at the last 12 months in Alexa is the increasing pre-eminence of Asian domains. All of Google’s Asian domain holdings are notably up, and Tencent’s QQ messaging system domain qq.com is in 8th place globally, 2nd in China.
The domain for Qihoo’s 360 Safeguard solution is the most popular proprietary security site on the internet, and 12 months of political and economic tension between China and the west seem to have given it a massive fillip of popularity, up 30 points to become the world’s 30th most popular site, ranked 7th in the China territory:
Japan’s Rakuten ecommerce site has made steady upward progress in the last year too:
Notable exceptions to the rise of Asia include taobao.com, China’s equivalent to eBay, which seems to have taken a drastic hit in the last year:
Similarly the B2B Chinese commerce site tmall.com has seen a drastic reduction in attention in the last year:
However, this only mirrors the decline of the original template:
Traditionally popular Asian blogging venues seem also to be in decline, including weibo.com
However this decline in veteran blogging communities is not limited to Asia:
If you know any Russians, at some point you’ll probably have been introduced to Russian Facebook clone vk.com, whose native language advantage has been taking its popularity into the stratosphere in the last 12 months. Likewise Russia’s Yandex search engine has recovered tremendous ground from Google and other western competitors lately, but the simultaneous rise of google.ru indicates generally stronger activity in search across the board in this area:
Another Russian social network, ok.ru, is clearly not being left behind, with a rise of 5 in global rank, to become 51st worldwide and 7th in Russia:
Taiwan’s no.1 site is also a social network, having climbed 8 places to 80th worldwide. Pixnet is a picture-based SN, and it seems to have been doing better than Yahoo’s Tumblr in the last year:
Asian search engines in general have been enjoying a significant rise in popularity recently, with Tencent’s Soso climbing nicely, retaining 12th place in China and 70th worldwide:
Of traditionally west-based resources, there are many success stories for the last 12 months. The continuing rise of open source code has brought global repository GitHub a big boost in attention:
The U.S.-based WhatsApp domain is also cashing in on what appears to be a growing trend in direct communication of information, without intermediary interpretations – and is doing well in Asia, too; it’s the 36th most popular site in India.
In general internet services and newer streaming portals are doing extremely well no matter their country of origin, with Amazon’s twitch.tv making steady progress up.
Sex, piracy and rock and roll
Since Tor sites are not going to show up in an http-based resource, we’ll have to make do with sex, piracy and rock and roll, and omit the drugs. The popular notion that the advent of Netflix is diminishing piracy is belied by the impressive rise of torrent domain kat.cr – though one has to consider that this may be because it has proved so resilient in a climate of take-downs and IP blocks to torrent-diffusing sites.
On a more risqué note, pornhub.com seems to be enjoying the respective lunches of many of its erstwhile competitors:
As might be expected after the events of last May, Adultfriendfinder has lost many friends in the last year, despite an increase in profile that briefly ratified the old adage ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Even so, it closes the 12-month period better than it began it.
Live webcam site Bongacams is bucking the trend.
In the field of music-based sites, there are fewer dramatic tendencies than in other categories and sectors. Sites such as Spotify and last.fm are having their annual ups and downs, but most of the big players, such as iTunes and Google Play, are hidden behind redirects and walled gardens, inaccessible to net metrics. Of those sites which can be assessed still, there are some deep plunges around:
In case any concerned site-owners might be wondering if they have lost ground to competitors, it’s worth considering another possibility for fluctuations in consumer loyalty over the last year: