This week’s most stunning statistic: In February, Facebook drove more traffic to the Guardian web site than Google did. This fact was proffered (I couldn’t bring myself to write shared) at the Changing Medias Summit Conference by Tanya Corduroy, Guardian’s director for digital development (full text of her speech):

Eighteen months ago, search represented 40% of the Guardian’s traffic and social represented just 2%. Six months ago – before the launch of our Facebook app – these figures had barely moved.

A recent Pew report echoed these figures, revealing that just 9% of digital news consumers follow news recommendations from Facebook or from Twitter. That compares with 32% who get news from search.

But last month, we felt a seismic shift in our referral traffic. For the first time in our history, Facebook drove more traffic to guardian.co.uk than Google for a number of days, accounting for more than 30% of our referrer traffic. This is a dramatic result from a standing start five months ago.

She made her point with a graph showing the crossing of the two traffic lines, even though the Facebook referrals now appear to be receding:

This is obviously a great achievement for the team who created the FB app. Overall, The Guardian’s relentless pursuit of digital innovation is paying off. Its last month traffic stats are staggering: more than 4 million unique browsers (+64% vs. Feb 2011) and almost 70 million unique browser monthly (+76% vs. Feb 2011). As for its mobile site, it is growing at a year-to-year rate of… 182%, with 640,000 unique browsers a month.

The Guardian Facebook App played a critical role in this rise in traffic. Over the last five months, 8 million people downloaded it and 40,000 are signing up every day, again according to Tanya Cordrey.

While it is the most documented, the Guardian’s case is far from being an isolated one. Scores of online news organizations are now betting on Facebook to boost their traffic. So far no one regrets the move. Not even the reader who can now enjoy for free what s/he is otherwise expected to pay. Take the Wall Street Journal: Against my objections, by forcing me to buy the mobile version, it abusively charged me €307 to renew my yearly subscription (which translate into a 100% price hike!) — this while most of it content is available on Facebook for free. And here in France, I know of one of the most viewed newspaper site about to go on Facebook with the following rationale: ‘We know we are not going to make a dime from this move, but we have to be there. We know our FB app will be a hit, and we’ll decide later what to do next…’ Once hooked on that eyeballs fix —even non-paying ones— it is safe to assume this company’s marketing people will be reluctant to lose their valuable new audience.

There are plenty of good reasons for large news organizations to be on Facebook. But the current frenzy also raises questions. Here is a sample:

#1: Demographics. As the Guardian example shows in the graph below, FB’s demographics are attractive: most of its social users are among the 18-24 group which, for this newspaper, is otherwise harder to reach:

(I found this graph on Currybetdotnet, a blog maintained by Martin Belam, the Lead User Experience and Information Architect at the Guardian. Martin wrote this great piece about the Guardian Facebook app).

#2: Control. Facebook apps are usually Canvas Apps. The pages are hosted and served by the publishers within a Facebook iFrame. This is the equivalent of an embedded mini site on the brand’s Facebook page. One of the key advantage is you retain control of all the relevant analytics (unlike working with Apple or Amazon). It can be quite helpful to see what kind of content the 18-24 group is interested in.

#3: Audience quality. In theory, being able to tap into Facebook’s 845 million users is attractive. But reaching readers in a remote African country, thanks to Facebook’s growing penetration in the region, makes very little economic sense from an advertising standpoint. More broadly, the web already suffers from of a loss of audience quality as publishers are pursuing eyeballs or unique visitors just for the sake numbers. A Facebook page (or app) doesn’t carry any stickiness: 8 out of 10 readers look at a single page and go elsewhere —and every marketer knows it. Being big on Facebook won’t translate into big money.

#4: Dependence. To me, that’s the main issue. Media should be very careful with their level of reliance on other content distributors such as Facebook, Google, Apple or Amazon. This can be summed up to a simple question: can we trust them?

The short answer is no.

It has nothing to do with any evil intent from these people. I’m just stating a mere fact: these companies act primarily in their own best interest. Everything they do is aimed at supporting their core business: building a global social rhizome for Facebook; extending its grasp on search and, as a result, on the related ad dollars for Google; selling more iPads, iPhones, and Macs for Apple; and up-selling high margin products and retaining the customer for Amazon. Everything else is secondary. If, at any given moment, distributing media content through deals attractive to publishers serves these goals, fine. But conditions might change and pragmatism always wins the day.

Facebook might decide to charge for hosting a media site, or require the use of its Credits currency for the transaction it carries. Amazon might alter its revenue sharing scheme without warning. Apple can decide overnight that some application features are no longer accepted in the AppStore, etc. Shift happens, you know.

Don’t expect any support from the legal side: all contracts are under US jurisdiction. You can challenge the big ones only if you seek seven figures damages. But let’s face it: for a media group form Sweden, or for a regional paper from the Midwest, it is completely unrealistic to consider suing a Silicon Valley player.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a media company shouldn’t work with large American tech companies. All have products or distribution vectors that result in fantastic boosters for the media business. But, updating the old saying: When you dine with one of these high-tech giants, bring a long ladle.
Naïveté is not an option.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com