In early December Facebook confirmed a change had been made to their News Feed. In the post announcing the change, Facebook cited an earlier entry from October that average referral traffic from the social network to media sites utilizing best practices increased by over 170% in the past year. We found that referral traffic from Facebook to our site, Hitched (a website about married life), had increased just 11%. With the latest algorithm change, however, I fear the number is about to plummet, even as our number of fans has increased and our website traffic, in general, has significantly grown.
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Facebook declined an interview request for this column, but did point me to several posts and other interviews to help answer my questions and concerns.
The first thing I have noticed with the new algorithm release is that whenever we post anything with a link, the reach is nearly non-existent—links now reach only about 2-5% of our fans. Back in the summer, the reach of our posts with links were around 25%—taking the link out could boost the reach another 10%. When we post today without a link it grabs just another 5%, on average. Moreover, when we shared “The top 10 things we learned about marriage this year” from another high quality content provider, Time magazine, it reached less than 2% of our fans.
Facebook has indicated these changes are to highlight more high quality content from publishers, which is extremely admirable and appreciated. With the countless Ph.D.s, best-selling authors, regular talk show guests, practicing marital therapists, and other leading experts who contribute regularly to Hitched, I assumed this change would help our traffic. Instead, I fear we have been demoted.
Peter Kafka of AllThingsD recently interviewed Facebook’s News Feed Manager, Lars Backstrom, about the new algorithm change and asked, “Are you paying attention to the source of the content? Or is it solely the type of content?” Backstrom replied, “Right now, it’s mostly oriented around the source…” Kafka pressed the issue, “So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publisher Y, it’s low quality?” Backstrom answered, “Yes.”
Back in August Facebook offered insight into how they calculate high quality content. They said the system uses over 1,000 different factors to determine quality, such as: Is the content from a source you would trust (since they “liked” the page I would hope so), would you complain about seeing the post in your feed, and is the post low quality or a meme?
Now, part of the recommended practices is sharing the posts that people would want to share with friends. Without knowing how much each factor is weighed when determining reach, it could be the lack of our share-ability that is having a major effect on our visibility. After all, if a person is “friends” with their mother-in-law I doubt they’ll want to share our story “5 Ways to Protect Your Marriage From Toxic In-Laws;” or I doubt many people want to announce to all of their friends that they “like” an article about getting the spark back in their marriage—not that there’s anything wrong with that… it’s admirable in fact.
Virality, in general, could be a terrible indicator of quality content. A recent story in the New York Times highlights how the virality of a story and the truth are often not connected at all. They highlight story after story that turned out to be false, but was widely shared as fact. The publishers reaped the traffic regardless of the story’s veracity. As I mentioned, though, sharing is just one of 1,000 factors. Facebook has indicated that what people see is unique and individual to their own habits. So if a person engages with a lot of photos, they’ll see more photos in their News Feed. Conversely, if you’re not a big engager with photos, you’ll see less of them.
Of course this could cause another problem of creating a feedback loop—only seeing what you already agree with or like. So if, for example, you had followed the Facebook pages of Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama because you wanted to see what each was saying, but only “liked” the posts of one person, it seems the other would slowly disappear from your feed.
This highlights a major hiccup in using Facebook as either an aggregator of news or distributor. Much of a journalists job is to not always give the reader what they want to know, but what they need to know. As Facebook continues to fine tune their algorithm to give people what they want, it’s clear from the drop in our fan reach that we’ll need to focus not so much on what we think is important, but what we think people will “like.”