Facebook now ‘critical’ to online news traffic, says Pew study

facebook_like_button_blue_logoGoogle may still hold the top spot as the primary traffic driver to news websites, but according to a new study from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, social networking giant Facebook is emerging as a “critical player” in the Internet mechanisms that push readers to news stories.

“Google and Facebook are increasingly set up as competitors (for) sorting through the material on the Web,” said Pew in the report. “If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.”

According to the study, Facebook alone drives up to 8 percent of traffic to some of the Internet’s top news sites. In turn, users are leaving these sites to go to Facebook, which the researchers say is an indication that the Facebook Share buttons provided on many news stories (like this one) are working.

While this may sound impressive, Facebook currently remains well behind the top three traffic drivers, which include Google, the Drudge Report and Yahoo. According to Pew, these “three sites ever account for more than 10 percent of the traffic to any one [major news website].”

Traffic from the Drudge Report, a right-wing political news aggregator, for instance, accounted for a full 19 percent of users to NYPost.com, the highest drive percentage of any site that received traffic from Drudge. By comparison, Facebook’s traffic-pusing powers topped at 8 percent, which went to HuffingtonPost.com.

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The Project for Excellence in Journalism report analyzed the traffic number for 25 different online news outlets, which include NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Yahoo! News, Google News, Reuters, AOL News, CNN, and others. The researchers took their traffic numbers from a variety of analytics sources, including Nielsen Co., ComScore and Hitwise. The numbers were collected during the first nine months of 2010.

Despite positive numbers from Facebook’s corner, the study shows that Twitter is a terrible traffic driver: “Twitter appears at this point to play a relatively small role in sharing of links to news sources,” says the report. “Of the top 21 sites for which there were data, Twitter showed up as referring links to just nine. And for all but one of those nine, Twitter sent only about 1 percent of total traffic.”

Overall, the study found that “casual users,” those who visited a site only a few times per month, accounted for one of the largest groups of visitors. “Power users,” those who visit a site at least 10 times each month and spend a longer time on the site during each visit, accounted for only 7 percent of traffic to the top 25 news sites.

Browse the full report here.