With Facebook just hitting its tenth birthday this week, it’s interesting to look back at the evolution of the website. More recently, Facebook has become a referral site. In addition to advertisements catered to the user, Facebook users see the information their ‘friends’ choose to share.
I don’t know about everyone else, but in the past couple of years, I see more and more links being shared by my Facebook ‘friends.’ It used to be that my newsfeed was filled with personal pictures, status updates, and wall-to-wall conversations between people. Now I mostly see links to outside articles and videos that my Facebook ‘friends’ think are interesting or important. Admittedly, most of the pop culture I know comes from these links and the ensuing information.
The type of traffic that websites get from clicks on links is called referral traffic. Another website that most think of for referral traffic is Google. Internet users go to Google to find other websites; Google is rarely, if ever, the end goal. Google is a tool to get to the websites users truly want. Websites know this and rely on Google to refer internet users to their website. For years, Google has been the leader in referral traffic.
Buzzfeed is one of the most popular outside websites shared through Facebook users. The posts range from goofy spoof articles to quizzes to more serious articles about social problems. People often share links to articles that interest them, and with a wide range of Facebook ‘friends’ the type of links Facebook users are exposed to ranges greatly.
Websites like Buzzfeed have claimed for a few years that Facebook was going to surpass Google in referral traffic. In the past year, Buzzfeed’s prediction has come true. A study by Buzzfeed has shown that their “Facebook traffic [has] soar[ed] in the last year, while Google traffic stayed relatively flat” (Kafka, 2014). Facebook has become more important than Google for websites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy.
I think this switch is very interesting. It means that the online content being waived in front of my face is controlled more by individuals that I personally know. Google and other search engines worked to provide the most relevant information to a user’s search terms. The list of links was created by a machine using computer technology and logic. Now, by simply checking my social network I see news articles, or at least the headlines, without knowing any background about the website providing the news. I can get news, whether serious or frivolous, without actively searching for news. This means that if I rely on the news I get through Facebook, I will only get the trending news rather than a true picture about what is going on.
While the increase in referrals means that Facebook users are seeing more outside information than ever before, I think it provides a trap. It allows Facebook users to become lazy—they no longer need to look elsewhere for news. The referrals also lead to a smaller window of information for its users. If Facebook users rely only on their ‘friends’ to tell them what is going on in the world, they are getting a very limited view of the world.