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Why BuzzFeed is trying to shift its strategy

In an interview about a new investment in BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, its co-founder and chief executive, told the New York Times, “We’re organizing ourselves to be a media company for the way people consume media today.”

But what about the way people consume media tomorrow?

While many people now find their news on Facebook, it’s easy to forget that very recently they found it on Google, and will surely find it somewhere else in the not-too-distant future. The danger for media companies, then, is to focus too much on how stories are delivered and too little on what the stories say.

BuzzFeed has been clear about its strategy: Publish items that people want to share on social media. It called Facebook the “new ‘front page’ for the Internet.” The strategy appears to be working. BuzzFeed’s new $50 million investment values the online media company at $850 million – one year after Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million.

Yet just a few years ago, readers were finding their news on search engines, and Google was said to be the new front page. That trend also spawned companies, like Demand Media and Huffington Post, which publish articles based on popular searches.

Here are data from a slice of the Internet – the 350,000 websites in the Shareaholic network, which gets 400 million unique visitors a month – that illustrate the shift. Last summer, 40 percent of traffic came from search engines and 14 percent came from social networks. This summer, about 29 percent of traffic comes from each.

Something similar happened at BuzzFeed. At the beginning of last year, Google and Facebook sent about the same amount of traffic to its network of sites. By the end of the year, Facebook sent 3.5 times as much traffic as Google.

(Perhaps surprisingly, Twitter is not driving traffic to news stories the way Facebook is. At Shareaholic, Twitter accounts for 1 percent of social traffic compared with 23 percent from Facebook. At BuzzFeed last year, Twitter’s share of social traffic shrank to 14 percent from 22 percent.)

If such a striking change from search to social happened in a year, who knows how we’ll be reading next summer? Even the investors who just gave BuzzFeed $50 million can’t predict the future.

“I tend to think at least for the next five to 10 years that social is the thing,” said Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the investment firm. He added, “Nobody knows and I could be totally wrong.”

Maybe that is why Peretti, who as a founder of both Huffington Post and BuzzFeed seems to have a sightline to the future of how people read, has been stressing the quality of BuzzFeed’s content, not just how clickable it is to Facebook users. Last month at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, he talked about the importance of BuzzFeed’s nascent long-form and investigative stories, not just its more traditional Facebook bait (like “30 Signs You’re Almost 30,” its fourth-most-viral story last year).

As Dixon put it: “The belief BuzzFeed has and I have is ultimately people are smart and you need to give them high-quality content. We want to build this machine where we can generate more and more revenues and hire more and more writers and reporters, because ultimately you can’t skimp on quality.”

There is another reason for BuzzFeed and other media companies to focus more on the stuff they’re creating than on where people read it. Just as readers are fickle, so are the tech companies that send readers their way. It only takes a small tweak of the algorithm and stories disappear.