In recent months Facebook has been busy making changes to its Newsfeed algorithm; the mathematical formula that sifts through “posts” and determines which stories appear first.
The visibility of a post depends on the relationship of the publisher with the user. The algorithm accounts for how often a user interacts with a particular page; how much they usually interact with that sort of post; the number of comments, likes and shares the post receives and whether other users have reported or hidden that post. Its webmasters are reducing the organic reach of posts. The average user has approximately 1,500 posts that could appear in their Newsfeed every day; however, Facebook’s algorithm only makes about 20% of posts visible.
In this paper we’re examining what the recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm means for users and big brand names. We’ll propose that, like Google, Facebook intends to harvest, collect and monetise our personal data and ask whether or not, from a search marketing perspective, the paths between the two internet giants could converge further.
Like Google, Facebook updates it algorithm to deliver the most relevant content to its users. In April, the social media giants announced a number of changes to Newsfeed, particularly targeting “spammy” posts by brand Pages “that deliberately try and game Newsfeed to get more distribution than they normally would.”
Firstly, Facebook’s webmasters have targeted “like-baiting”; posts that explicitly ask users to share, comment or like in order to get more distribution than it normally would. Facebook stated that its new algorithm “will not impact Pages that are genuinely trying to encourage discussion among their fans”, but reduce the number of stories that dilute content posted by friends and more relevant (and interesting) brand Pages. “When we survey people…they report that like-baiting stories are, on average, 15% less relevant than other stories with a comparable number of likes, comments and shares”, say their webmasters.
Secondly, Facebook is seeking to reduce the amount of frequently circulated content. People will inevitably post great content again and again – that’s not the issue. Its new modifications will crack-down on poorer quality and less user-relevant content from repeat-offending Pages. “We are improving Newsfeed to de-emphasise these Pages, and our early testing shows that this change causes people to hide 10% fewer stories from Pages overall”, writes software engineer, Erich Owens.
Thirdly, the updates are designed to punish spammy links. “Some stories in Newsfeed use inaccurate language or formatting to try and trick people into clicking through to a website that contains only ads or a combination of frequently circulated content and ads”. Facebook’s webmasters have managed to detect spammy links by measuring how often people share the links they have visited. “We’ve seen a 5% increase in people on Facebook clicking on links that take them off Facebook – this is a big increase in the context of Newsfeed and is a good sign that people are finding the remaining content in their Newsfeed more relevant and trustworthy.”
So, fundamentally, the algorithmic changes intend to punish publishers who are creating feed spam. Moreover, Facebook’s webmasters ensure high quality publishers that their Pages will not be adversely affected – they might even see an increase in Newsfeed distribution and traffic should not be concerned. “We’re making these changes to ensure that feed spam content does not drown out the content that people really want to see on Facebook from the friends and Pages they care about”, they say.
Nevertheless, algorithmic changes have (inevitably) drawn criticism. The company has not cited any specific changes to brand “Pages”, however, some publishers claim that the content they share over Facebook has not been reaching the reader numbers that they had in the past.
“The reported tweaks to Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithm, formerly called EdgeRank, are just the latest in a progression of changes that have slowly diminished the organic reach of brand pages over the past couple of years,” says Joseph Tam, senior director of digital media agency MEC. “Facebook has been very vocal in expressing that such changes are in the name of protecting the user experience and responding to user sentiment. You have to believe that efforts to “clean up” the Newsfeed are essential to user retention and in the best long-term interest of the company, but it remains to be seen what the impact and reaction will be from marketers.”
Brands that have built marketing schemes on a basic organic strategy will suffer most.
Adweek reports that there is an increasing “misconception in some circles around the idea that Facebook is an agnostic platform that doesn’t systematically curate the user experience.” Facebook has been modifying its algorithm to “highlight content in a fashion that’s not unlike a newspaper or magazine’s online presence”, as more websites that work with viral material have suffered.
Changes to Google’s search algorithm have fuelled the development of search marketing and SEO and the recent changes by Facebook have encouraged online publishers to revaluate their Newsfeed strategies. Primarily, Facebook – like Google – has sought to make its user experience more personal. “There’s a natural variability in the popularity of content on Facebook depending on what people are sharing—especially for posts that go viral very rapidly”, a spokesperson told Adweek. “Fluctuation can happen independently of updates that we make to our ranking algorithms.”
The main implication is that publishers will need to invest more in paid advertising.
“Over the past few months, we have been having conversations with clients about declining organic distribution in News Feed. This is largely due to more competition driven by more sharing”, the California-based social media giant told CNET.
Nevertheless, one source (allegedly familiar with Facebook’s marketing strategies) told Valleywag that algorithmic updates intend to force brands to spend more money on advertising because free brand pages will become less effective. Organic reach has supposedly been cut from 2% to 1%, which would mean that an advertising giant like Nike, which has spent huge resources in acquiring over 16 million Facebook “likes”, would only reach around 160,000 users when it publishes a new post.
So, what are the results of Facebook’s algorithmic changes?
Facebook’s ad revenue has been on the up. Adode’s Social Media Intelligence Report highlights how Facebook’s ad click through rate (CTR) has increased by 20% quarter-on-quarter and 160% year-on-year, while ad “impressions” have increased by over 40%. And, although revenue per visit (RPV) has declined on Twitter and Tumblr, it is on the rise on Facebook. Hats off; they’re Impressive statistics.
Adobe’s report is based on “260 billion Facebook ad impressions, 226 billion Facebook post impressions, 17 billion referred visits from social networking sites, and 7 billion brand post interactions including comments, likes and shares.”
Indeed, Facebook’s ad business is currently thriving. Firstly, Facebook’s adverts are becoming more sophisticated and user-relevant. More “impressions” means that more users are clicking. Ad click rates have increased 70% year-on-year and nearly 50% quarter-on-quarter. Secondly, brand posts with embedded videos have gained traction in the first quarter of 2014, experiencing 58% more engagement quarter-on-quarter and 25% growth from last year.
Facebook has also implemented auto-play in users’ new feeds, resulting in a 785% YoY and 134% QoQ increase in video plays.
Facebook has been prioritising visual content in our news feeds. Users’ engage most with posts with images, while posts that include links also experienced significantly more engagement. Conversely, text-only Facebook brand posts have experienced a decline in engagement, becoming a less effective advertising tactic.
Brands have to stay on top of current trends.
Revenue from social channels acquired by retail sites has been on the decline; not Facebook, however, which is on the up – 11% year-on-year. The growing popularity of Facebook ads fuelled a 60% increase in sales revenue in the final quarter of 2013 and a similar growth trajectory has continued into this year. Meanwhile, both Twitter and Tumble have suffered a fall in their referred revenue rates.
Pinterest has overtaken Facebook in the UK for the amount of referral revenue, but Facebook is still in a position of great strength because it offers great all-round value for advertisers.
Another finding in Adobe’s report is that fewer people are “liking” Facebook posts, but more people are “sharing” and commenting; perhaps surprising because it takes more time and effort. “People are clicking through to the ads they are seeing”, says Joe Martin, an analyst at ADI. “Click-through rates are up year over year and quarter over quarter. The new Autoplay feature for video seems to be working, as well. There have been huge amounts of video plays, and engagement rates are up”, he continues, “even though people have expressed frustration over the algorithm changes…there’s good news in the data for brands.”
For some time, Facebook’s webmasters have been running tests on Newsfeed to encourage users to post more regularly. For example, when users see more text only updates from friends, they are more likely to post themselves. Accordingly, after increasing the number visible text only updates, Facebook reported that an average of nine million more updates were posted daily.
However, research concluded that text statuses from brand Pages were not as effective as from friends. Therefore, Facebook now treats posts from Pages differently. “We are learning that posts from Pages behave differently to posts from friends and we are working to improve our ranking algorithms so that we do a better job of differentiating between the two types”, wrote Product Manager, Chris Turitzin. “This will help us show people more content they want to see. Page admins can expect a decrease in the distribution of their text status updates, but they may see some increases in engagement and distribution for other story types”.
We are seeing more brand-related posts, but what else is Newsfeed “feeding” us?
You may have noticed Facebook’s new auto-play videos – videos that play (without sound) automatically as you scroll through Newsfeed. It has also introduced auto play adverts, although not video content uploaded from third party sites such as YouTube. And as part the platform redesign, photos are also now considerably larger.
More high quality content is rolled out, especially current news stories from authoritative sources. Webmasters have stated that the mobile version has been redesigned to become more competitive with Twitter on breaking news stories. In addition, there is more resurfaced content. Even if a user has read a story from a source like the BBC, Facebook wants to ensure its users do not miss topical content and social conversations. “After people read a story, they are unlikely to go back and find that story again to see what their friends were saying about it, and it wouldn’t bump up in News Feed”, webmasters wrote in a blog. “With this update, stories will occasionally resurface that have new comments from friends.”
Tweaks to Facebook’s algorithm means that users have more control over their Newsfeed. It is becoming more personalised, but users can still ensure they get what they want by engaging with high quality posts and reporting spammy or irrelevant posts.
Facebook and Google are very similar. Both are vast internet empires and both use metadata contextual data analysis and monetise our data through targeted advertising and selling analysis of data trends (although both, of course, now have to meet stricter privacy laws). The organic reach of Facebook posts has decreased, so businesses are going to have to revaluate how they use social media to promote their brand.
Facebook is making long-term investment in an Artificial Intelligence research lab, helping it to better understand user-relevant content and determine the visibility of Newsfeed posts. Users are adding more and more friends and liking more and more brand Pages, which has intensified competition in our already congested Newsfeeds; nowadays, both people and brands have to contest the right to appear on our Newsfeeds.
There are around 25 million small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) who regularly use Facebook, but only about 1 million of those advertise frequently. The changes will force more small businesses to pay for advertising (or “boosts”). Andrew Allsop, marketing manager for Fatsoma online ticketing, now spends £500 a month on Facebook advertising compared to nothing this time last year. “We post content that we know is really relevant for our marketplace but it will get really limited organic distribution,” he says. “Our products are social by nature – you go to events with your friends – but if I don’t pay to boost our posts, no one sees them anymore.”
The recent changes might also force SMEs to explore other channels to promote their brand. Twitter is an obvious alternative. Nevertheless, Facebook still reigns supreme over the world of social media and around 1.3 billion people use it. The future of Facebook advertising will be over mobile devices; mass, personalised and automated reach. Of course, it needs to keep users engaged with its platform. If it succeeds, and continues to innovate and evolve, it will remain an essential communicative and commercial artery for businesses and brands.