What are TouTiao and TopBuzz?

Launching in 2012, TouTiao is now among the largest news aggregation apps in China. Installed on over 250 million devices, it’s the flagship product of Bytedance: owner of world-beating apps like Uber, and the world’s most valuable startup. TouTiao doesn’t only syndicate news; it presents content from social media platforms, video streaming sites and more. Its all-encompassing nature makes it the most widely-used app in China in terms of duration: users spend an average of 73 minutes a day on the app, surpassing even Facebook. 

ByteDance launched TopBuzz in 2015: an English-language version of TouTiao that has been steadily ascending charts ever since. In December 2018 alone, Chartbeat found that TopBuzz referred almost 34 million page views across Charbeat publishers internationally. That’s a 36x increase on January 2017. TopBuzz had 36 million monthly active users, as of September 2019. See below for the steep incline in users from February 2017 to February 2019.

TopBuzz referal traffic feb 2017 to feb 2019

How do TouTiao and TopBuzz work?

TouTiao stands out as it curates user-specific content using a remarkably sophisticated AI. This technology is very much the heart of the product, to the extent that TouTiao has never hired an editor, and CEO Chen Lin has previously said that TouTiao is “not a news company, but an AI company in the search business”. TopBuzz uses the same Bytedance AI, making it just as powerful an application. 

Bytedance’s AI creates engaging user feeds by focussing on three key areas:

  • User profiles: these are built on the app’s understanding of the user’s demographics
  • Content: The system uses natural language processing to determine if an article is trending, whether it’s long or short, and its timeliness (evergreen or anchored to a specific moment).
  • Context: It also accounts for location-related data like geography, weather and local news.

The apps refine their recommendations as users spend more time with them, increasing the quality of recommendations and significantly raising user retention rates.

TouTiao and TopBuzz monetise through advertising. Bytedance’s AI inserts ads every three to five pieces of news. Leveraging their user bases, TouTiao and TopBuzz share revenue with creators in a YouTube-style proportional rewards system. 

Publishers should be aware that a curation process without human input has seen fake news surfaced virally in the past. Interestingly, TouTiao only allows “legitimate” media institutions to publish political content, but TopBuzz has yet to implement this rule. Also, financial rewards for clicks fundamentally contradicts many publishers’ quality-over-quantity business models. But, neither TopBuzz nor TouTiao are closed networks, so visitors without accounts can still view content. Also, the fact that so many TouTiao/TopBuzz publishers focus on clickbait, quick-fire content does allow higher quality content to stand out, it just may be difficult for it to surface in the first place. There’s no hard-and-fast answer here.

How can I integrate my publication with TouTiao and TopBuzz?

Anyone can set up a publisher account and start surfacing content. TouTiao says on its website that by October 2017, 900,000 of its 1.1 million publishing accounts were “self-media.” Interestingly, only 5,500 accounts are professional news outlets and over 70,000 represent government institutions and other organisations. Also, TopBuzz has officially partnered with over 200,000 publishers and independent creators including The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Hearst and CNN.

After signing up for a publisher account on TouTiao or TopBuzz’s signup pages, publishers’ content immediately begins being crawled by Bytedance’s AI and recommendation algorithms, giving new publishers just as many opportunities to be surfaced in users’ feeds as established ones.

Emulating TouTiao’s model, TopBuzz presents a significant opportunity for digital publishers, and content creators of all kinds. It may continue to encounter trouble as it proliferates in the west, where regulations on things like copyright and fake news are stricter than China, but consider that TopBuzz floats around #10 among top free news apps in Google Play Store. That’s above CNN and even Flipboard. On iTunes, it ranked higher than the BBC News app. It continues to grow rapidly, and publishers would do well to investigate.