What Small Businesses Should Know About How the Facebook News Feed Algorithm Works
Near the beginning of this year, Facebook’s organic reach declined 49 percent from peak levels in October 2013. And for large pages with more than 500,000 Likes, organic reach hit 2 percent. According to News Feed optimization service Edgerank Checker of 50,000 posts by 1,000 Pages shows organic reach per fan (median) has steadily declined:
Feb 2012 = 16%
Sep 2013 = 12.60%
Nov 2013 = 10.15%
Dec 2013 = 7.83%
Mar 2014 = 6.51%
TechCrunch writer Josh Constine notes that the roughly 50% decline in reach over the past year matches the 50% increase in Page Likes per typical Facebook user over the same time period. As people Like more Pages, the organic reach of each drops.
How Facebook News Feed Algorithm Works
As a result, competition for Facebook news feed and sidebar space is increasing, driving up the price of advertising. According to AdWeek, ad prices are trending up, in part because Facebook has not increased the frequency of ads. Facebook claimed it would keep the ad inventory level at about 5 percent of all posts in the News Feed.
Facebook’s goal to ensure only the most engaging posts and interesting content is displayed has resulted in some Pages and people not being treated equally. And as Constine points out, many brands, local merchants, and public figures that have worked hard to entice people to Like their Page are frustrated about the drop in reach.
“They paid Facebook for ads to get people to Like their Page, because Facebook told them it was a good long-term investment. They built businesses around the reach they got on Facebook, devoting resources to fill Facebook with content that pulls in the attention it monetizes.”
How Facebook Filters The Feed
Facebook filters its feed with a News Feed sorting algorithm, unofficially known as EdgeRank, that analyzes every signal possible to determine the relevance of each post to each person. Roughly 100,000 different indicators of importance are factored in.
Facebook News Feed Director of Product Management, Will Cathcart, told Constine the most powerful determinants of whether a post is shown in the feed are the following:
* How popular (Liked, commented on, shared, clicked) are the post creator’s past posts with everyone.
* How popular is this post with everyone who has already seen it.
* How popular have the post creator’s past posts been with the viewer. Does the type of post (status update, photo, video, link) match what types have been popular with the viewer in the past?
* How recently was the post published.
Cathcart says that for each user, Facebook assigns a score to each post they could see. It injects some ads, but “for the most part we put them in rank order” he says. It doesn’t matter if a post is from a friend or a Page, Facebook just tries to show people what they want.
In other words, the more successful a post is, and the more popular its creator, the more likely a viewer will see the post. The fact that someone Liked a Page makes little difference, because it’s whether the Page continues to be interesting to a potential viewer of their posts.
A brand’s reach increases for posts that garner numerous likes, comments, shares, and clicks, and decreases if their posts are dull and boring. “And since the natural trend is for reach to shrink as competition grows, Pages have to work harder and harder to stay visible.”
Facebook rewards Pages with engaging content and penalizes the use of click-bait headlines and shallow image macro memes. Constine insists that with funny, and dynamic content that fits targeted audiences, Pages can still get a high volume of free traffic out of Facebook.
A study Constine commissioned from EdgeRank Checker revealed news outlets and others that publish their real product to Facebook, like news articles, tend to see more reach than Pages that merely publish marketing messages for their products.
“You can Like both The New York Times and Oreos, but you can actually read the NYT on News Feed whereas you can’t eat a cookie there. So it makes sense that the NYT would reach a higher percentage of its fans — its posts are more interesting.”
Paying for Ads Only Way to Beat System
Constine concludes the only way to beat the system is to pay for ads. But now Facebook lets Pages instantly copy the content of one of their posts into an ad. It’s still the same pay-for-visibility situation, but it’s as if Facebook is extorting Pages for many in order to communicate with their own fans.
“I used to reach more of my fans, now I reach less, and Facebook wants me to pay for what I used to get for free” is Constine’s characterization despite him believing it’s an unfortunate emergent by-product of the system rather than a malicious choice by Facebook.
Facebook’s Shady Bait and Switch Tactic
Facebook told companies to buy Likes as a long-term investment, when it likely knew that reach to those fans would decline, devaluing the investment. Constine notes that advertisers made calculations comparing the lifetime value of a fan vs the cost to buy them through Facebook ads.
“Without integrating the decline in reach into that math, they might have bought fans at prices they can’t recoup.” It’s a bait and switch tactic potential Facebook advertisers won’t easily forget or overlook.
The “tough break, you’re not that interesting, get over it” attitude exhibited by Facebook’s Director Of Global Communications response to some businesses can’t continue, says Constine. “And [Facebook] should apologize for encouraging brands to buy Likes without warning them about inevitable reach decreases.”
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