Baltnews Latvia’s audience size decreased after domain suspension

Open-source web traffic analysis reveals significant decrease in the Kremlin outlet’s reach

(Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab)

The suspension of the Kremlin-owned media outlet Baltnews’s domain in Latvia in July significantly diminished the outlet’s reach online. The latest traffic data shows that even after six months since the suspension, the outlet has not yet recovered its previous traffic volume.

While a domain ban renders an outlet completely inaccessible at its previous address, the outlet can register a new domain with alternate domain name and keep its content online. That said, this change of URLs typically complicates the outlet’s ability to retain its existing audience as well as expand its reach, given that, at first, the audience might not know the new domain address and Google search results will not show the new domain as a top result. This case study demonstrates that domain suspension can be a somewhat effective means of fighting malign content online.

The University of Latvia’s Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science, which oversees domain registration in Latvia, suspended the Baltnews.lv domain on July 24, 2019. The suspension came after the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the institute a letter indicating that Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the Kremlin-owned Rossiya Segodnya, which owns Baltnews, was on the European Union’s list of sanctioned persons. For the same reason, Estonian officials pushed another Kremlin-owned outlet, Sputnik Estonia, out of the country on January 1, 2020.

Kremlin media outlets in the Baltic states decried the Baltnews Latvia domain ban, calling it “an attempt to get rid of independent media” and claiming that it will have the unintended effect of driving more traffic to Baltnews. After the suspension, Baltnews Latvia adopted a new domain, lv.baltnews.com, but the outlet nonetheless suffered a significant blow to its traffic.

Traffic comparison

A comparison of the two domains for Baltnews Latvia revealed that the outlet’s audience size in Latvia decreased after its domain was suspended on July 24, 2019.

Comparison of traffic to baltnews.lv domain and lv.baltnews.com domain. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Rank2Traffic and SimilarWeb)

The number of total visits shrunk from 542,000 on July 1, before the ban took effect, to 170,000, after the outlet adopted the new domain. In short, the new domain garnered almost three times less traffic than did the old one. There is no traffic to the old domain, according to the website monitoring tool Rank2Traffic.

After the domain suspension, Baltnews also saw a change in the primary sources driving traffic to the outlet.

Comparison of Baltnews.lv traffic sources (the domain before the ban) and lv.baltnews.com traffic sources (the domain after the ban). The pink markers highlight the margin of difference. (Source: SimilarWeb/archive, top; SimilarWeb/archive, bottom)

Direct input of the website remained the main traffic source, but the new domain increased its relative referral use by 168 percent. Its relative social media use increased over threefold, by 209 percent. Discovery by search diminished significantly as a traffic source, however, dropping from 16.25 percent to only 1.10 percent.

Search engine algorithms take into account website recognition and trust when returning search results; as a result, Baltnews’s new domain likely had to rely on alternative means to drive traffic to its site. The web traffic analysis revealed Baltnews relied increasingly on external referrals, such as backlinks from other websites, and social media use to drive traffic to the new domain.

Traffic from referrals

Although the relative distribution of traffic sources showed that lv.baltnews.com increased referral use, the referral data itself showed that there were fewer links per each unique domain that directed readers to the new Baltnews Latvia domain.

Comparison of number of Baltnews.lv and lv.baltnews.com links. (Source: Neilpatel.com/archive, top; Neilpatel.com/archive, bottom)

This comparison may seem unfair, as the previous domain had about five years to garner referrals and backlinks. To arrive at a fairer comparison, the DFRLab exported backlink data from NeilPatel, a webpage analytics tool, and compared referral counts within a one-month period on either side of July 2019, when the suspension occurred: June 2019 for the old domain and August 2019 data for the new domain. Simple data filtering via Excel returned 47 unique domains directing to the old domain in June 2019 and eight unique domains directing to the new domain in August 2019, an almost sixfold decrease.

Traffic from social media

After the ban, Baltnews Latvia also saw a change in its top social media platform traffic source, with Odnoklasniki (OK), the Russian social media platform, displacing Facebook.

Comparison of the top five social media platforms driving traffic to Baltnews Latvia before and after the domain suspension. (Source: SimilarWeb/archive, left; SimilarWeb/archive, right)

After its domain was suspended, Baltnews deleted most of its Facebook pages. The only page still live at the time of this analysis was that of Baltnews Estonia, which had been inactive for some time — its last post was dated August 25, 2018.

The new Baltnews Latvia webpage linked to VKontakte (a Russian social media platform), Facebook, OK, and Yandex Zen, the news aggregator for the Russian search engine Yandex.com. The Facebook page that the site linked to, however, had been removed, but a Google cache was available. The page was created on August 9, 2019, and had 826 followers.

Cached version of the erased Baltnews Latvia page on Facebook. The pink lines show matching username of the page. (Source: Google/archive, top; Facebook/archive, bottom)

Before adopting this Facebook page, Baltnews.lv used another one, which the DFRLab found to be down as well. Google Search results returned a record from the mobile version of this Facebook page, however. The preview text indicated that it had 19,220 likes, which is over 23 times the more recent page’s like count.

Google search result for the URL address “facebook.com/baltnewslv.” (Source: Google/archive)

It is unclear why both of these Facebook pages were abandoned or removed, as they had far higher reach than the OK groups.

Comparison of Baltnews groups on OK by participant count (pink boxes) and their most recent publishing time (green boxes). (Source: OK/archive, top left; OK/archive, top right; OK/archive, bottom left; OK/archive, bottom right)

The two biggest Baltnews groups on OK are group that links from the website and a group for Baltnews Lithuania. These groups had 165 and 153 participants, respectively. The Baltnews Latvia and Baltnews Estonia groups, on the other hand, had just nine and eight participants respectively. Six months after the Baltnews Latvia domain suspension, only the group that united all three pages was up and running, with 567 participants.

Conclusion

The suspension of the Baltnews.lv domain significantly curtailed the Kremlin-owned outlet’s reach in Latvia, even after it acquired a new domain, lv.baltnews.com. Monthly traffic had decreased almost threefold a month after the suspension, and the number of unique referring domains (backlinks) decreased sixfold. In the six months since its suspension, the outlet has not yet built back to its previous traffic volume.

Compounding, this trend, Baltnews Latvia deleted its Facebook pages and started using Russian social media site OK as its primary social media platform, despite having a significantly smaller follower base on the Russian platform.

Despite Baltnews Latvia’s absolute audience size having decreased, the outlet’s relative use of social media increased, as the old domain’s traffic data did not carry over to the new one’s.

This case demonstrated the possible effects of domain suspension. Though suspension does not prevent malign content from reappearing on another domain, the reach of the content diminishes, thereby requiring additional resources to recapture the previous audience.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate with @DFRLab and is based in Latvia.

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