With Google, Facebook, Instagram, and others increasingly tight about sending users off their platforms, is the website a thing of the past?
By Colin Finkle
Most time spent on the internet is in a handful of sites: Facebook, Amazon, Google, Reddit, Instagram, and others. These sites are getting less and less likely to link off to independent websites. Their business models and financials are tied to keeping people on the platform.
This trend points to a future where nearly no traffic is referred from social media sites. Instead, these platforms expect brands to have properties on the platform and service people there. Brands that want promotion need to pay for it. This makes it more critical than ever for brands to convince their customers to communicate directly with them through email, phone, SMS, and direct mail.
Sometime, in the not so distant future, you might look fondly back at the website era. “Remember the days when we put up a website, people found their way there, and some purchased directly from our site? Yeah, those days are gone.”
People on the internet have congregated in a handful of places; Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, and Reddit are the sites where most people (in the western world) spend most of their time, according to Amazon’s own Alexa rankings.
Pressures to keep users on the platforms, and away from your site.
These companies are facing pressures to keep their users on the site. Most of the pressure comes from the advertisement business model. These sites serve ads and are incented to keep people circling the platforms. Every time a user goes through enough content to prompt another ad, that is inventory that the website can sell.
Amazon is the exception, but they aren’t shy about their aims for retail domination. They do not like how some vendors sell directly from other websites; they would like all transactions on the web to go through Amazon’s store and infrastructure. They are aggressive with the language their terms on where and for how much they can sell elsewhere.
These companies have grown up, and they are all public companies or owned by conglomerates. And the stock market has chosen to evaluate web companies based on a few stats: daily active users, average time on site, ad inventory, and a few others. All of these key performance indicators (KPIs) are hurt when a user leaves the site to go to an independent website; so the stock goes down, and their cost of capital goes up.
Twitter’s stock is getting pummeled because it does not perform any of those stats, and ironically Twitter is one of the last that is friendly to driving traffic off-site. Will they bow to Wall Street pressure?
The bottom line is that these sites do not want to send traffic to your website anymore.
The Walls Are Getting Higher
Rand Fishkin of Sparktoro and previously Moz wrote an exceptional piece outlining all the ways that these established web properties are less and less likely to send traffic to websites.
I will summarize and reword his insights for our audience of entrepreneurs and professional brand builders, but I urge you to read his piece.
Google. This year is the first year the perennial search engine will send less traffic to websites than last year. Instead, they would like to answer questions directly. They now use features at the top of the results (SERP features: definitions, stock prices, weather, translations, etc.) and serve cached pages stored on Google to mobile viewers.
Facebook. There was a time when brands like Coca-Cola were spending tens of millions getting people to like their Facebook page. I am sure they would like their investment back, as the organic reach of posts on Facebook has gone lower than 2%. Want to reach your fans? Pay up.
Reddit. The internet’s town hall was once a resource of links and discussions regarding those pieced. Now, Reddit general manager, Erik Martin, says: “we’re not in the business of sending traffic to publishers… Our site is designed for our users.”
Instagram. The photo site has never supported outbound links on posts (unless you are an advertiser, of course) and users have resorted to sharing links the only place they can: their profile bios.
Amazon. Jeff Bezos wants all of the world manufacturers to sell and distribute exclusively on Amazon and their infrastructure. They even have artificial intelligence buyers to bid profit margins of manufacturers down. Want to get visibility over your competitors? Buy ads in Amazon search.
LinkedIn. Your professional networking site is now showing your colleagues and peers posts without links over content with links.
Twitter, the lone holdout
What about Twitter? For some reason, Twitter is still okay with linking off-site. Will it stay that way? Hard to say.
If the behavior of it’s competitors is any indication, they will probably give more and more content format options (long form, video, audio, stories) and give native content preference.
I hope that the Twitter executives have a broader view of the web ecosystem. They know that they benefit the user experience, platform, and the internet community when people have a resource of links that lead to interesting content elsewhere. The users will come back.
Pulling up the ladder behind them
I am troubled about what this means for consumers and brand builders. It’s going to be a more hostile environment to build a brand than ever before, and adding value for your customers may not be what makes you win in this new era.
The only way to drive traffic is to buy ads from these companies. The brands that will benefit will be the ones who can manufacture the cheapest products with the highest markup, and in turn are willing to tolerate that an increasing amount of that profit is going to the platform. That environment will favor manufacturers willing to make a quick buck rather than companies trying to build a brand.
The irony is that all of these brands would not have reached their dominance without organic traffic and other sites linking to them. They would not have become who they are in the environment that they are creating. So where is the next big company going to come from?
The Website Era vs. The Platform Era
Website Era: You needed to maintain and publish new content to one property: your website.
Platform Era: You are expected to maintain and feed new content to more than half a dozen platforms, all of which have their formatting quirks and content types they prefer. Established brands can keep up; small businesses will fall behind.
Website Era: People would enter your site organically through search, links, and word of mouth.
Platform Era: Websites will receive no traffic from referrals. If a brand has a property on a platform (e.g., Facebook page), the company will be forced to pay for promotion.
Website Era: If you provided your customers with exceptional value at an affordable price, you were rewarded with links, 5-star reviews, and viral growth.
Platform Era: Promotion is not based on merit; it will be based on your ability to pay. This will mean manufacturers and service providers that can make cheap products with a high-profit margin are the ones who will be promoted because they can afford to pay.
Website Era: The data from your website is your own: traffic, conversion rates, time on site, etc. You could look for customer insights, and even run tests to see what is working and what isn’t.
Platform Era: The platforms will own the data, and they may decide to share it if you pay a premium.
Communicating with Existing Customers
Website Era: You could publish something on your website, and be reasonably confident that it reached a substantial amount of your existing customer base.
Platform Era: Every time you want to communicate something to an existing customer via these platforms, you will be expected to pay.
Website Era: You needed to listen to your customers and keep on top of changing tastes to serve the market. Otherwise, you could be disrupted by a competitor.
Platform Era: You can be disrupted by not only changes in customer preferences, but changes in algorithms and artificial intelligence.
Conclusion. It’s more important than ever to convert people into opt-in communications.
You need to start aggressively converting people you are connecting with on your website into inner circle fans. They need to know, like and trust you enough to opt into communications over email, phone, SMS, or direct mail.
We have discussed the importance of moving people to higher order communication before, and Nick Westergard has talked to us about the orbits of people around our brand. That was important then and now, but the environment is going to get even more hostile for a brand builder to attract customers and communicate with them. You need to go to as direct means of communications as possible.
Now it is time to take action to build your brand.
Create a lead magnet, so the customers you are attracting have a reason to sign up for your email list, SMS list, mailing list or Podcast. Think about ways of adding value to your customer through email, phone, SMS, or mail.