Research indicates organic search declines but optimism remains

By Dorinne Hoss

Arc XP

Chicago, Illinois, USA


News companies have weathered significant shifts and declines in search and referral traffic in the past few years. Search traffic has declined overall for most publishers with Google changes and consumer behaviour shifts. At the same time, referral traffic from social media, news aggregators, and other channels has also fallen.

Arc XP partnered with Digiday to survey 115 publishers to gain a better understanding of how traffic shifts are affecting them and the steps they’re taking to address challenges. We asked about the traffic trends they’re seeing, how those trends have impacted their revenue, and the steps they’re taking to either rebuild their traffic or find other ways to reach and grow their audience.

News company search traffic trends in 2023

Search traffic is an important revenue driver for publishers, with 100% of survey respondents saying search traffic has a moderate or very significant impact on their annual revenue. But 2023 proved to be a challenging year for publisher search traffic, with most survey respondents saying they experienced a 1% to 20% decline.

The news cmopanies in our survey experienced traffic declines across the major search channels, including Google (Search, News, and Discover) as well as Bing and Yahoo. These declines are likely due to a combination of algorithm changes and shifts in audience behaviour. For example, more users are turning to AI tools or TikTok for information instead of search engines.

News fatigue is another potential cause of search decline as many seek to avoid reading negative news.

According to survey respondents, the primary ways search traffic decline impacts their revenue are decreased advertising ROI (50% of respondents) and reduced affiliate programme performance (also 50% of respondents). They also cited a change in the quality of their audience (49% of respondents), followed by decreased marketing ROI (43% of respondents).

How publishers are responding to traffic declines

In response to the decline in search traffic, the publishers we surveyed said they are increasing their focus on other channels.

Social media plays a big role in their plans, with 75% focusing on creating short-form original vertical content for TikTok and other social channels, and 73% increasing their presence across social media channels overall. Live streaming, long-form video content, and direct traffic efforts like newsletters and owned podcasts are also popular tactics.

As publishers respond to declines in search traffic, they say they’re facing challenges in getting the right data analysis and insights (60% of survey respondents), as well as keeping up with constantly changing search algorithms and updates (56% of survey respondents).

Conducting thorough site audits, analysing site analytics, and keeping up with hundreds of changes from search engines every year requires specific technical skills and bandwidth that could be a stretch for many news media teams.

We also asked news companies specifically about their response to AI: Nearly all (95%) said they had taken some form of action in the past year to address its impact on their search traffic.

News company search traffic expectations for 2024

When media companies look ahead to 2024, they are optimistic search traffic will rebound. Most we surveyed expect search traffic to increase by 1% to 20% this year, likely driven by newsworthy events like the Summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential election.

Their cautious optimism about 2024 might also reflect confidence in the tactics they’re implementing to rebuild their long-term search traffic. But with platform changes, user behaviour shifts, and the emergence of AI, it’s likely search traffic will never fully rebound to the level publishers experienced in recent years. They’ll need to continue exploring ways to boost traffic across all channels, including owned and third-party avenues.

About Dorinne Hoss

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.