Organic Search Traffic Decline: Strategies for News Publishers


While social media referral traffic has already been declining for years, search engines have always been a healthy traffic source for news publishers. However, this is set to change with Google providing answers directly in the search results list. Over the past few months, several outlets have reported declining search engine traffic in addition to an already plummeting social media referral traffic. How is this affecting news publishers, and what can they do to mitigate this loss in traffic?

A 0-click search refers to a type of search engine query answered directly on the search engine results page itself, without requiring the user to click through to any external website to find the information they were seeking. While convenient, users no longer need to visit source websites like news sites.

Deeper analysis reveals that the decline in Google traffic for publishers is not solely the result of AI advancements. Broader shifts in user behaviour and online content consumption patterns play a significant role. Factors such as changes in platform algorithms, increased competition, and a general disinterest in the news contribute to the complexity of the issue. What can publishers do to address this issue?

Strategies for Publishers

Publishers should proactively address the loss in organic search traffic, and can do so by adopting a few different strategies.

1. Build direct links with your audience

With the declining referrals from traditional social media platforms, publishers focus more on building direct links with their audience through websites, apps, newsletters, and podcasts. This shift towards channels offering greater control and direct engagement with the audience is a key strategy for sustaining and growing audience relationships in a changing digital landscape.

The shift in news consumption patterns towards messaging apps like WhatsApp, driven by a desire for greater privacy, presents both opportunities and challenges for publishers. While these platforms offer a direct and intimate way to engage with audiences, the transition necessitates a more organic and conversational approach to news distribution. The increasing preference for “side-door access” to news via search and social media rather than direct visits to publishers’ homepages indicates a broader change in how news is discovered and consumed​.

In response to the challenge of mitigating declining traffic from organic search and social media, news organisations are exploring innovative approaches to adapt to the changing landscape of news consumption. One notable strategy suggested by Same Cholke in a NiemanLab Prediction for 2024 is to invest more in marketing efforts to reclaim a significant role in popular culture. Various experiments are underway to reassert news’ presence in the public sphere, from outdoor billboards to printed comic books, emphasising the need for creative solutions to engage with the audience beyond traditional digital platforms​.

Additionally, the creation of news aggregators represents a collaborative effort among publishers to counteract declining referral traffic. An example of this is the initiative by some local, regional, and national media outlets in Canada that have launched their own news aggregator, Unrigged. This collective action showcases the importance of solidarity among news providers in navigating the post-social media landscape, although the challenge remains whether audiences will adapt their news habits accordingly​.

To make readers feel more connected to their authors, The New York Times has taken the initiative to recreate hundreds of author pages in an attempt to increase trustworthiness and showcase the expertise of their writers. This approach suggests that clear communication of journalistic ethics and direct engagement with readers can significantly impact audience perception and loyalty.

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2.    Explore alternative platforms

The end of the referral model, as seen with platforms like Facebook and X, and the rise of content-based networks like YouTube and TikTok, demand that publishers adapt their content and distribution strategies. Success in these video-based networks, where younger audiences increasingly consume news, requires upskilling in video production and effectively leveraging the platforms’ creation and distribution tools.

Publishers are exploring alternative platforms and strategies to drive traffic and engage audiences. This includes a focus on messaging services like WhatsApp, business networks like LinkedIn, and new sources like Google Discover and Threads. The diversification of traffic sources aims to mitigate the risks associated with the declining influence of traditional search engines on news consumption.

One significant trend that emerged from the Reuters’ Institute Trends and Predictions for 2024 is the pivot away from traditional reliance on platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) towards more controlled distribution channels such as direct website traffic, newsletters, and podcasts. Almost two-thirds of media leaders expressed concern over the decline of referral traffic from these platforms, with a majority planning to focus more on channels over which they have direct control. This includes a marked interest in alternative platforms like WhatsApp, where 61% of respondents indicated they would be increasing their efforts, reflecting a strategic move to engage audiences on platforms where they are more active. Moreover, there is a notable shift towards video content, with many respondents indicating plans to produce more visual content alongside an increase in newsletter production and podcast output​.

3.    Leveraging AI for Audience Development

While AI may not be the answer to all problems publishers face, it may help mitigate the effects of declining organic search traffic by making content more palatable to readers, offering personalised content recommendations and improving newsroom processes to make long-form journalism more accessible.

Personalised Content Recommendations: Reach, the UK’s largest commercial news publisher, developed the Neptune Recommender, an AI-powered tool designed to increase page views, user dwell time, and overall engagement by offering relevant content recommendations to readers across its network. This tool, which accounts for a significant portion of Reach’s page-view growth, underscores the effectiveness of AI in personalising user experiences to foster loyalty and increase traffic​​.

Our own personalised content recommendation tool, JAMES, allows publishers to send fully personalised content via email to readers and is another example of engaging with readers directly.

Automated Content Distribution: Forbes, for example, has been using AI to innovate in various areas, including a chatbot named Adelaide that provides users with Forbes content in a conversational manner, aiming to increase engagement and loyalty. This example illustrates how AI can automate and personalise content distribution, a strategy that could be extended to social media, messaging apps, and other digital platforms to reach a wider audience​​.

Enhancing Long-Form Content Accessibility: Mediahuis experimented with AI for summarising stories and generating content, indicating a broader industry exploration into making long-form journalism more accessible and engaging through AI. Although they found limitations in AI’s current ability to replace human writing in newsrooms, the use of AI for content summaries and personalisation is recognised as a valuable tool for enhancing user engagement​​.


With internet giants like search engines and social media reducing referral traffic to news websites, publishers need to find alternative strategies that rely on other channels for revenue. Some of the strategies publishers are experimenting with are deepening direct audience engagement, exploring alternative platforms, and leveraging AI for content personalization and distribution. Informing and engaging communities remains a key goal, with a renewed focus on ethical AI use, transparency, and public trust. By embracing these strategies, publishers can remain relevant while mitigating the impact of declining organic search traffic on their revenue.


Carlo Prato
Digital Marketer

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