How the coronavirus has changed the way Utahns use the internet

(Screenshot via Facebook Live) The Salt Lake City Council held its first work session entirely over the internet on Tuesday amid an outbreak of the coronavirus.

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The pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, and one not-so-insignificant shift is how we use our computers and phones. Seriously, how many of you had heard of the video-conferencing site Zoom before we were told to work from home?

A New York Times article dug into the way that Americans’ social distancing measures have changed the way they use the internet, and it had some fascinating results. Facebook, Netflix, and Youtube had big gains in traffic, as did video-conferencing and streaming sites. Most news sites saw a boom, while sports ones like ESPN.com suffered.

At The Salt Lake Tribune, we thought it’d be interesting to check out the websites for businesses either based in Utah or unusually important to Utahns. In the end, we looked at 44 sites across 11 categories, comparing their data from February to March.

The data comes from SimilarWeb, a tool that estimates website traffic. They’re a little bit opaque about how they do this, saying that they combine data “from external partners, public data sources, anonymous behavioral data and first-party direct measurement.” Some websites give SimilarWeb their Google Analytics data directly. Much of their data seems to come from a browser plugin that users install to help get information from the service, and in return, SimilarWeb gets an idea of what websites these people visit.

The caveat is that the word “estimate” is doing a lot of work here.

The numbers for SimilarWeb are often off by up to 50% for smaller sites. Even for relatively popular ones like The Tribune’s sltrib.com, it underestimated by about 20%. But there does seem to be a consensus that SimilarWeb’s numbers are relatively useful for — though certainly not perfect at — looking at trends, because whatever biases the estimate has in one month are likely to continue in the next. So if you’re looking for evidence of changes, the data can help.

The following numbers compare estimated “total visits," which is different from a pageview. A visit, as defined by SimilarWeb, happens when someone visits one or more pages on a website on one device. If they become inactive on the site for more than 30 minutes, then become active again, it counts as a new visit. Ditto if they access the same website on a new device.

As you might expect, visits for some websites went way up. Government sites became more important to Utahns — for example, Utah.gov’s estimated visits increased from 5.5 million to 8.95 million in the month of March. Much of that, unsurprisingly, came from coronavirus.utah.gov, which earned 2.45 million visits in March. That site didn’t exist until March 2. Visits to Salt Lake County’s website also increased significantly.

Just as Utahns were looking for more information from their governments, they were also far more interested in tracking the news. Salt Lake Tribune traffic estimates roughly doubled, from 3.9 million visits in February to 8.25 million in March. Increases for the Deseret News weren’t quite as drastic but still up — 4.75 million to 5.9 million.

KSL.com, which includes their popular online classifieds, earned more traffic than anyone in both months, according to SimilarWeb estimates, with about 16.3 million visits in February and 24 million in March. KUTV saw its traffic grow, with 2.6 million visits rising to 3.4 million. Fox 13 grew from 1.7 million visits to 3.15 million. ABC4’s traffic spiked from 480,000 to 1.35 million. KSL’s TV-specific website, KSLTV.com, saw traffic increase from 550,000 to 730,000 visits.

Traffic for websites representing grocery stores with online ordering also saw big increases. The estimate for Smith’s Food and Drug’s website, which includes stores in a number of states, jumped from 1.5 million to 2.8 million, while Utah-based Harmons’ traffic estimate increased from 85,000 to 150,000.

Meanwhile, local restaurant chains with online ordering also seemed to see some growth: Cafe Rio’s visits went from 200,000 to 270,000 in March, while Costa Vida’s increased from 65,000 to 80,000. National delivery service DoorDash saw visits increase from 20.5 million to 28.5 million.

I expected larger increases in two big Utah-based companies that would seem to give people something to do while they’re stuck at home. The genealogy site Ancestry only saw visits increase from 42.2 million to 43.8 million. Meanwhile, Pluralsight’s traffic increased from 6.1 million to 6.55 million visits — but could spike in April, when they’re giving away their online classes for free.

The pandemic had mixed results on the traffic of Utah-based online retailers. Overstock.com (24.8 million to 26.6 million) and 1-800-Contacts (1.3 million to 1.4 million) saw small gains. Outdoor-focused Sportsman’s Warehouse saw an increase from 2.75 million visits to 4.3 million — though improved weather was also likely a factor. Backcountry.com saw losses, 5.2 million to 4.7 million visits, weather perhaps pulling in the negative direction.

Deseret Book saw an increase in visits from 430,000 to 500,000, though people seemed satisfied with the furniture they sat on while reading those books: RC Willey’s traffic decreased from 1 million to 860,000.

Some traffic numbers barely budged. Banks and credit unions like America First Credit Union (2.1 million to 2.25 million), Mountain America Credit Union (1.4 million to 1.45 million), Zions Bank (1.25 million to 1.4 million), and the Bank of Utah (45,000 to 55,000) saw small percentage increases across the board. Utilities Rocky Mountain Power (470,000 to 490,000) and Dominion Energy (2.75 million to 2.7 million) stayed constant. UtahRealEstate.com (1.3 million to 1.25 million) and real estate companies like Homie (110,000 visits in both months) were flat as well.

And of course, there were significant declines in the entertainment industries. Utah’s local sports websites are difficult to track, because sites like UtahJazz.com actually relocate to national websites like NBA.com/jazz. But NBA.com traffic decreased from 45.3 million to 25.5 million in the month of March, MLSSoccer.com visits declined from 2.6 million to 1.9 million, and minor league baseball’s MiLB.com fell from 2.05 million to 1.7 million, even out of season.

The news was also tough for movie theater chains like the Megaplex Theaters, which saw visits decline from 440,000 to 290,000.

Interestingly, Delta Air Lines’ website visits actually increased from 31.6 million to 34 million — perhaps as people were trying to get refunds or check the status of increasingly canceled flights. (A more detailed analysis from SimilarWeb shows Delta has lost 15% of traffic in the past week.) But hotel chains like Marriott slid heavily, from 37 million to 23.5 million views. Locally, RideUTA.com’s traffic decreased from 780,000 to 540,000.

Ski resort traffic consistently fell — though we should note the changing season probably had an impact on this, too. Snowbird fell from 290,000 to 210,000, Park City Mountain Resort declined from 220,000 to 140,000, Alta slid from 180,000 to 130,000, Deer Valley’s fell from 150,000 to 70,000, Brighton’s from 120,000 to 90,000, and Solitude’s from 85,000 to 50,000. Remember, ski areas were some of the nations’ hardest-hit locales early in the pandemic.

All in all, even though SimilarWeb may be off in some cases, the trends largely play out the way you’d expect: sites that inform people, help feed people, or provide at-home entertainment have seen big gains. Sites for industries that rely on out-of-house travel haven’t been as popular, with a couple of exceptions.

We’ll see how much consumer behavior changes in April. Everything was still naively open at the beginning of March, and the people reacting to the shutdown probably temporarily boosted traffic for some specific sites — Delta, I’m looking at you. But it appears April will be pretty uniformly spent with stay-at-home directives in place locally, and we’ll have a better idea of the online impact of Utahns hunkering down then.

Andy Larsen is a Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at alarsen@sltrib.com or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.