Is Facebook becoming a portal? Now 4th largest source of traffic to news sites

New data from Experian Hitwise suggests that Facebook users are treating it increasingly like a portal — they’re using it as a source of news. Just under a year ago, less than 0.5% of visits to news and media sites came from Facebook, according to Experian Hitwise. Last week, 3.5% of visits to sites in the news and media category came from Facebook.

The only sites sending more traffic to news and media sites were Google, Yahoo, and MSN. Even Google News was less of an important source of traffic to news and media sites — it accounted for only 1.39% of category upstream visits.

Data from Nielsen released last week showed that in December 2009, Facebook had close to 120 million US users and that average time spent on the site increased by 200% over December 2008. All of the metrics services rank Facebook in the top 5 of all internet sites. The only sites that get more traffic are search engines (Google) and portals (Yahoo and MSN). Clearly the status updates Facebook users post to their pages have the power to drive large amounts of traffic to media sources when links are provided.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have already picked up on the importance of Facebook by setting up up their own pages, while blogs like VentureBeat figured out long ago that Facebook could boost traffic. Indeed, Facebook is now encouraging users to create personalized news channels — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more innovations in this arena.

VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.