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Reality check: No, Upworthy’s traffic didn’t get crushed by Facebook’s algorithm change

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A week or so ago, Business Insider had a post about how a recent change to Facebook’s (s fb) newsfeed algorithm had “crushed” traffic to Upworthy, the viral-news site that relies on social platforms for much of its audience, with a chart showing a sharp decline in unique visitors to the site. The post itself went viral, perhaps in part because critics of Upworthy were eager to see it fail.

The chart that Business Insider used, which came from the Quantcast traffic-measuring firm, seemed pretty conclusive: it showed that Upworthy reached more than 80 million unique visitors in the month of November, and then its reach dropped dramatically — to the point where it reached less than 60 million in the first part of January, for a decline of about 40 percent.


This seemed like a fairly obvious sign that Facebook’s algorithm change — which the social network has suggested was designed to favor “high quality” news sources over those that traffic in gimmicky viral content — was penalizing Upworthy. But a broader view of the Quantcast data shows that things aren’t nearly as bad for the site as that first graph showed.

If you segment the Upworthy traffic measured by Quantcast by week instead of by month, you can see that the site often gets huge spikes of visitors — a result of a post that does particularly well on Facebook or some other platform — and that these inevitably subside, as they do with any publisher. Upworthy had several in November that pushed weekly uniques above the 35 million mark.

Upworthy Quantcast chart two1

Since those spikes, the traffic to Upworthy has definitely declined — but it is still substantially higher than it was last year: less than a year ago, the site was getting well below 5 million unique visitors per week, and now it is about three times that level, with traffic in February hitting more than 20 million per week.

There’s no question that there are risks to depending on a platform like Facebook for all or even most of your traffic, as I tried to point out in a recent post. The platform can easily change its algorithm in ways that impact your business, as it has done with newspaper publishers and their “social readers,” and with games like Farmville. But Upworthy’s demise might be a little farther away than some of the recent schadenfreude-filled coverage implied.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo

3 Responses to “Reality check: No, Upworthy’s traffic didn’t get crushed by Facebook’s algorithm change”

  1. George Nimeh

    Interesting logic, but it doesn’t explain why all the other “viral” sites (with the notable exception of Buzzfeed) have all experienced the same pattern at the same time.

    Facebook did 2 things recently, which combined have created this situation:

    1) They changed their algorithm, and those modifications have had an obvious impact. Some have benefited. Others have been hurt. I think the data supports the fact that purely “viral” sites have been hurt.

    The second reason provides some good context for the first:

    2) Facebook is pushing businesses to buy ads.

    In their own sales materials from November 2013, Facebook makes it clear: “We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.”

    In other words, there’s so much stuff being shared, less people are going to see individual posts … but if you want people to see your posts, all you have to do is pay. This was confirmed by a Facebook spokesman quoted in Adweek who said that the overall organic reach of Facebook posts from brands is in slow decline. “We’re getting to a place where because more people are sharing more things, the best way to get your stuff seen if you’re a business is to pay for it,” he said.

    Summary: They tweaked their algorithm and want more money from ads. This isn’t about schadenfreude, Mathew. Nein nein nein. Das ist business.

    • rememberingbob

      Thanks, George — I’m certainly not disputing that Facebook changed its algorithm and that has possibly affected sites like Upworthy, I’m simply taking issue with the idea that this change “crushed” Upworthy’s traffic. Thanks for the comment.