Vice Media Digital Makeover Triggers Traffic Slide

April free fall follows closure of partner-traffic program, but company attributes drop to temporary lull in content output

Vice Media

Life on its own online isn’t easy for Vice Media.

Ending the digital publisher’s controversial practice of rolling up web traffic for partner sites into an aggregated number resulted in the total domestic traffic falling nearly by half between March 2019 and the following month, according to Comscore. The numbers improved slightly for May, when the company eliminated the majority of the branded topic verticals on the site.

Not only did Vice’s total traffic drop by 49% in April, with the removal of the rolled-up Vice Media numbers, but the traffic for Vice.com itself tumbled 18% to 33.4 million unique visitors in the U.S. That number rebounded last month to 35.6 million, but remains 13% lower than the Vice.com stat for March.

A Vice spokeswoman attributed the decline to a reduction in the amount of content being produced for Vice.com in April while the staff focused on revamping the site as part of the removal of the verticals.

The drop-off stemmed from “editorial being directed to build a platform for the new Vice.com, with output in flux, which led to numbers falling,” said the spokeswoman, who added that the increase seen in May “shows the trajectory we are confident will continue now that the new platform is launched.”

Vice announced last month at its newfront presentation its intent to end the traffic assignment letters system, which lumped together web traffic for Vice.com with partner sites including Ranker.com, Snopes.com and WeTransfer.com. Vice is not the only company to engage in the system, which has drawn criticism from advertisers.

The system allowed for partner sites to tap into Vice Media’s stronger ad sales network, in return for rolling up into Vice’s total traffic number. A spokeswoman said that ending the practice was part of measures to “invite people to realize it’s a new day at Vice.”

Vice justified the decision to cease partner-traffic aggregation last month, citing growth on their owned-and-operated sites had “outpaced former partner sites.”  While true, with October 2018 being the first month that traffic to Vice.com was greater than that of partner sites, partners contributed over 24 million views for Vice Media in the last month of the practice. Its removal meant the loss of what constituted 37% of its total traffic in March.

The partners may also have been driving some traffic to Vice.com, given the decline of over 5 million visitors from March to May for the site. But Vice.com traffic is still trending considerably higher than year-ago levels, with May 2019 numbers exceeding May 2018 by 8 million users.

To be sure, Comscore data is not the only indicator of Vice’s traffic health. Its data is often criticized as flawed, and focuses on the U.S.-only. Half of Vice’s traffic comes from outside the U.S., according to the company’s spokeswoman, and it also does not take into account Vice’s performance on social platforms like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.

Alluding to the past traffic-aggregation practice at the Vice Newfront presentation in May, Chief Revenue Officer Dom Delport described the strategy change as a “move toward transparency” and mentioned that no longer boosting their traffic numbers would mean “our Comscore numbers will drop and we know it… we don’t care because it doesn’t represent our audience.”

A full breakdown of which brand contributed to the total Vice Media traffic by month is available below. Note that the total sum of traffic by site per month exceeds the total for Vice Media, as some sites have duplicate audiences (i.e. a Vice.com visitor who also visited Ranker.com). Ranker.com was by far the greatest partner contributor, exceeding the traffic contributed by Vice.com in 16 out of 27 tracked months from January 2017 through to March 2019.

One piece of good news for Vice is that its decision in May to eliminate the majority of the site’s verticals, or “channels,” save for i-D, Vice News, Vice Video, Vice Impact and Garage, did not see a reduction in traffic. To some degree, the reintegration has helped Vice, given their traffic increased by 2 million visitors between April and May.

In a shakeup of its digital editorial team earlier this month, Vice laid off its two top editors, but made several other key staffing moves, appointing a new executive managing editor and new chief digital officer. The editorial changes occurred a week before HBO opted to not renew “Vice News Tonight” and announced the exit of the EVP of news at Vice Media.

The company has been reorganizing itself under CEO Nancy Dubuc, with Disney having written off $510 million of the value of its effective 21% stake in Vice Media after cutting 10% of staff following missing revenue targets. Vice also recently closed $250 million in debt financing from a group of new investors including George Soros’ investment fund.