Facebook, which turned six years old today and has some 400 million users, is a major player in the way people consume news all around the world.
That was the premise of a Feb. 1 post by ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, who wrote in reaction to Facebook’s suggestion that users become fans of news organizations that publish on Facebook, using the social network as their primary news reader.
Market researcher Hitwise Feb. 3 found that in fact Facebook is a lead news reader, after Google, Yahoo and MSN search. This stunned me: A social networking site is a leading news disseminator? Then I did some serious thinking about this and realized it’s probably true.
To handle my daily work, I grab all of my high-tech news through Google Reader, one of the RSS feed readers Kirkpatrick said was probably going to be replaced by Facebook over time. I receive no non-tech news through Google Reader, which is one of my main workflow applications.
At the local level, I receive a major state newspaper. In the morning I learn local things like who the new mayor of my hometown is and what projects children in surrounding schools are working on, as well as news about unfortunate accidents and tragedies that happen at the local level.
Yet everything big that breaks over the course of my 8-to-whenever workday-not to be morbid, but the best examples I can think of now are the deaths of Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze and, most recently, JD Salinger-I discovered through Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t go to these sites to read news, but rather happened on the bits by looking at Facebook News Feed or Twitter’s trends.
That’s the sort of serendipitous discovery that makes the Web-particularly services with scale such as Facebook and Twitter-so powerful.
If I’m stumbling upon news on Facebook and Twitter, you might well imagine the average Facebook user who spends 20 to 25 minutes per day on the site is getting a lot of news through digital osmosis, if not seeking it on the social network outright. Or what of the guy or gal who tweets 20 times a day? He or she might spot a new trend on Twitter and click on those tweets for news. That is another promising digital news path.
That’s the anecdotal surmising. Now for some harder data. Hitwise analyst Heather Hopkins found that Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to News and Media sites the week of Jan. 25, after Google (17.3 percent), Yahoo (7.9 percent) and MSN (4.4 percent).
Facebook Evolving as It Turns 6
Specifically, Facebook notched 3.52 percent of the upstream traffic, while Google News accounted for 1.39 percent of visits. Google Reader, my RSS feed reader of choice, barely rated at .01 percent of traffic. Moreover, Reader visits have stalled, Hopkins said.
She concluded: “Facebook could be a major disruptor to the News and Media category. And with the Wall Street Journal already publishing content to Facebook, perhaps the social network can avoid the run-ins that Google has suffered recently with Rupert Murdoch. We will continue to watch this space.”
Kirkpatrick, in a follow-up post, exhorted Facebook to step up its news aggregation game-which includes telling users to become fans of the New York Times, CNN and Guardian Facebook Pages-to take share from the major search engines, which marginalize readers and other sources in the long tail.
But we may be limiting Facebook a tad. Facebook may have started as a social network, but one day it’s going to capture the same sort of mind share that Google currently enjoys. Google owns search, Facebook owns “social.”
We’ve seen what Google can do when it branches out, with mobile and location-based services and cloud computing collaboration. Facebook, roughly half Google’s age, may have a higher ceiling at this point.
Dave McClure, who writes the Master of 500 Hats blog, noted that Facebook could excel as an e-commerce platform because users have no problem returning with great frequency.
Hitwise analyst Heather Dougherty noted that during the holidays over 2 percent of visitors to Facebook then visited a Website for a major retailer such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy or Bath & Body Works, “signifying that consumers were actively seeking their content and offerings.”
Why couldn’t Facebook become a supreme recommendation engine, with users going to the site to socialize, share and discuss news, and recommend products to buy? Facebook could include links to the aforementioned retailers to let friends buy what their friends recommend.
Happy birthday to Facebook and its crew. I look forward to the next six years to see what you can do.