Friday, July 1, 2016
Facebook to make changes to it's algorithm to benefit friends and family and less to companies
For years, Facebook has courted publishers of all sizes, asking them to depend more and more on the social media giant to expand their audiences. Now, Facebook has a new message for publishers: Tamp down your expectations.
Facebook said last Wednesday that it planned to make a series of changes to its news feed algorithm so that it will more favorably promote content posted by the friends and family of users.
The side effect of those changes, the company said, is that content posted by publishers will show up less prominently in news feeds, resulting in significantly less traffic to the hundreds of news media sites that have come to rely on Facebook.
The move underscores the never-ending algorithm-tweaking that Facebook undertakes to maintain interest in its news feed, the company’s marquee feature that is seen by more than 1.65 billion users every month.
It is also a reminder that while Facebook is vastly important to the long-term growth of news media companies, from older outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post to upstarts like BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox Media, publishers rank lower on Facebook’s list of priorities.
“There is now an expectation, in general, on the part of publishers that platforms will change, and that they won’t necessarily be informed how they will change,” said Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “This completely highlights how ownership of the user is a central tension between news producers and platforms.”
The changes will affect all types of content posted by publishers, including links, videos, live videos and photos. Facebook said it expected a drop in reach and referral traffic for publishers whose audience comes primarily to content posted by the publisher’s official Facebook page. Facebook plans to start making the changes as soon as this week.
It will have less of an impact, however, if most of a publisher’s traffic comes from individual users sharing and commenting on their stories and videos. As has long been the case, publisher content that your friends interact with will appear higher in the feed compared to posts shared directly by a publisher.
Over the last few years, publishers struggling to attract readership and draw online advertising dollars have come to view Facebook and its users as a good way to gain new audiences and lucrative revenue streams. That has resulted in closer partnerships between Facebook and publishers experimenting with new media products tailored specifically for the social media site.
Last year, for example, Facebook debuted Instant Articles, a product that allowed publishers to post articles directly to the social media site. Both Facebook and publishers described the move as a better, faster reading experience for users. Facebook is also paying a number of publishers, including The Times, to create broadcasts for Facebook Live, the company’s new live-streaming video product.
Those features will also be affected by the algorithm change.
Publishers have little choice but to deal with the changes that Facebook makes, given the dependent relationship news media companies have with the social network. Some 44 percent of adults in the United States regularly read news content on the site, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. And more than 40 percent of referral traffic to news sites comes from Facebook, according to data from Parse.ly, a digital publishing analytics company.
Publishers value the referral traffic they get from Facebook, but they increasingly fear that readers will remain on the social media site for news content rather than visit the publishers’ own properties. There is also concern that some of Facebook’s products allow it to control not just the user experience but also own much of the revenue and user data.
At a time when the relationship between publishers and Facebook is already tense, any change that de-emphasizes news content is likely to deepen concern. And Facebook’s move will be just another reminder that publishers do not have direct access to their online audiences on social platforms.
Many publishers were hesitant to talk about what Facebook’s latest algorithm change might mean for them.
Melissa Bell, vice president of growth at Vox Media, said Facebook’s decision was not surprising.
“I think it’s a characteristic of Facebook that we’ve always understood,” she said. “Facebook, at the end of the day, is a place where people want to share things that matter to them, whether it’s a news story or their child walking.”
She said Vox Media still expected to continue experimenting with Facebook’s different tools.
Other news media executives were waiting to see how the changes played out.
“I think we’ll simply have to watch it,” said Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president for product and technology at The New York Times. He added that he did not expect the move would result in a big strategy shift for the Times.
But Facebook’s news feed tweaks could be more damaging to smaller publishers that rely on the site to help raise their profile. Rob Toledo, editor and co-founder of Exstreamist.com, a site about streaming services that he said gets roughly 500,000 monthly page views, has already started looking to other platforms like Twitter because his site’s Facebook page is not adding to his audience in a significant way.
Still, Mr. Toledo said, the algorithm change was frustrating and could halve the number of Facebook users his site reached.
“It’s almost not worth it for small publishers,” he said.
Facebook has a history of unilaterally changing how material from its partners is posted on its service.
Zynga, a once powerful online game developer and former close partner of Facebook, saw a sharp downturn after Facebook made a set of changes on how its gaming-related content appeared on the social network. Zynga was also hurt by other shifts in computing, as users moved en masse from desktop computers to mobile devices.
In 2011, in one of Facebook’s earliest experiences with media publishers, The Washington Post, among others, created so-called social reader tools, a way to more easily read and share stories on Facebook. But when the products began aggressively sending Facebook users updates on what their friends had read, Facebook made a series of changes that effectively killed the apps.
Last year, the company announced that it would adjust the news feed in response to users who were “worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about” — a change that some publishers believed resulted in decreased readership.78COMMENTS
This time, in a set of “values” the company made public in a post last Wednesday, Facebook made clear that showcasing content posted by friends and family was its top priority.
“The growth and competition in the publisher ecosystem is really, really strong,” Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for the news feed at Facebook, said in a recent interview with reporters. “We’re worried that a lot of people using Facebook are not able to connect to friends and family as well because of that.”