Publishers’ Stake in Facebook’s Evolving Algorithm
A couple of weeks ago, Facebook announced the latest in a series of tweaks to the algorithm that determines what shows up in the news feed of its 1.1 billion daily users. The update articulated some “core values” that seemed to build upon themes that were already apparent from the previous Facebook algorithm adjustments:
- Facebook is going back to its consumer-centric roots. Though Facebook has become an important channel for distribution of professional media content, the main reason that consumers spend time on Facebook is still primarily to be in touch with friends. Accordingly, Facebook is prioritizing content that is posted or shared by friends and family.
- Beyond that, priority is given to content that “informs” and “entertains”. This would seem to be good news for traditional publishers, but they are not the ones who get to decide. Rather it is the users who determine by their actions what content qualifies as informative or entertaining. The Facebook algorithm pays attention to each individual’s prior preferences to guide what next gets into the news feed; the expert opinions of curators or editors don’t necessarily count.
- Facebook also stated that priority would be given to “authentic communication”. This principle reinforced the prior Facebook algorithm tweak announced last April that downgraded content deemed to be “clickbait”. When Facebook sees users abandon content shortly after first encountering it (rather than lingering, or better yet liking, commenting, or sharing the content), Facebook’s algorithm assumes that the content is not “authentic” but rather is misleading, sensational, or spammy.
All of these algorithm adjustments do credit to Facebook and its claims of being a consumer-driven enterprise. However they also are likely to lead, as have past Facebook algorithm adjustments, to negative outcomes for some publishers. For those who syndicate content to Facebook (e.g. The Washington Post syndicates 100% of its daily content to Facebook), there will be less reach and less ad revenue to share. For those who increasingly rely upon Facebook as a source of organic traffic to their websites, there will be fewer referrals. After the April algorithm adjustment, some sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post reported dramatic declines in their Facebook-referred traffic.
It is still too early to tell how this latest algorithm tweak will affect reach, revenue and referral traffic. However the fact of continuing algorithm adjustments alerts publishers once again that in social media environments, they don’t have the traditional direct relationship with their audience. Publishers have been disintermediated again; they do not own the customer relationship. Furthermore, what has been a co-dependent relationship between publishers and Facebook is morphing into a more lopsided affair, with the power tilting ever more decidedly in favor of the social media platform. The algorithm giveth and the algorithm taketh away.
It remains to be seen whether Facebook will ultimately try to migrate some of these content partners from a syndicated/revenue-share model to a paid advertising model (perhaps on the Google ad-words bidding model). In the meantime, publishers have relatively few options:
- Publishers can try to diversify their social media distribution so as to be less dependent on Facebook. However Facebook is still the 800-pound gorilla with the largest active user base, so this option likely won’t make up for lost volume.
- Publishers can encourage users to modify their “See First” settings in Facebook to manually assign priority to the publisher-branded content in the news feed. The New York Times and others have already tried this approach.
- Publishers who mislead people and pump out clickbait can try more respectable approaches that won’t be as likely to get flagged as “inauthentic” by Facebook’s algorithm.
- Publishers can continue to shift more of their content to video -- a format that Facebook’s algorithm increasingly is favoring (and that has more lucrative CPMs anyway).
However the basic publisher paradox (fear of Facebook, dependence on Facebook) remains as intractable as ever.