For News Sites, Google Is the Past and Facebook Is the Future

When it comes to attracting visitors, Google (s goog) is still a far more important source of traffic for major news websites than social media, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, but Facebook in particular is climbing in importance, and has already become a significant driver of pageviews for some sites. Among its other findings, the study also reinforces how much work even the leading news websites still have to do when it comes to building engagement with their readers and convincing them to stick around once they arrive at their news pages.

The Pew study, a partnership with online-survey company Nielsen that tracked how users came to the major news websites and where they went after they left, shows Google still accounts for about 30 percent of the visitors to most of the 24 sites surveyed, on average. For 17 of those — including CNN (s twx), The New York Times (s nyt), ABC News (s dis) and The Huffington Post (s aol) — it’s the leading source of visitors, and for the others in the study, it was the second highest source. The survey results combined the traffic from both Google’s main search pages and from Google News.

While Google still rules, Facebook is growing in importance as a driver of visitors. For some sites, it accounts for as much as eight percent of their total visits, and for several of them — including The New York Times — it accounts for over 5 percent.

The Huffington Post is by far the most influenced by Facebook, which accounts for about five percent of its traffic. That isn’t surprising, given the company’s early embrace of Facebook’s “open graph” plugins and other features. The site implemented a substantial integration of Facebook profiles and “likes” after the social network launched those features, and this drove not only pageviews but also a dramatic increase in comments from Facebook users. The Huffington Post was also one of the first to make recommendations based on what readers’ social graphs were reading, something other sites such as the New York Times have begun doing to a lesser extent.

While Facebook is increasing in importance, the Pew study found that for the major news sites it looked at, Twitter still isn’t a large driver of visits. The service only showed up as a referring source for nine of the 24 sites surveyed, and for most of those, it accounted for only about one percent or less of the visits. Although it’s worth noting this likely underestimates Twitter’s influence — since many users don’t go to the Twitter website but use mobile apps and other services — the data will likely reinforce for some publishers the idea that Facebook is the only thing they need to worry about — something Gawker owner Nick Denton put into words when he redesigned his network of blogs and removed the Twitter links, saying “only Facebook matters.”

The Pew study also confirmed some other assumptions about online news readers, including the fact that they don’t click on ads. Nielsen tracks any link that is clicked more than five times, and not a single link from any advertisement on any of the sites surveyed managed to clear that bar in the nine months the survey was running. This reinforces how little mainstream media sites can rely on advertising, and helps explain why so many are experimenting with paywalls and signing up for Apple’s (s aapl) iPad subscription plans (which Conde Nast and Hearst have just embraced).

One of the results that stood out from the survey for me, however, was the number of repeat visits and time spent by visitors for some of the main sites that Pew looked at. In some cases, the leading news sites are only getting one or two repeat visits a month — and remember these are daily news sites that should theoretically be attracting people multiple days a week, if not multiple times a day. The Pew Center admitted there is controversy over how unique visitors and repeat visits are counted, but those are still extremely low numbers by any measure.

That’s a serious issue for publishers, because it means they are failing to capture much of the attention of their users — and attention is the new currency of media online. For younger visitors, much of that online attention and time is likely being spent elsewhere, including Facebook, and that’s a growing risk for all media entities.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Stefan Le Du