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Facebook Changes How It Ranks News Feed Content

Facebook has made some changes to how it ranks content in the news feed, putting a greater emphasis on content quality. The update may have a significant impact on how visible your site’s content will be on the social network. Comparisons to Google’s Panda update have emerged.

As a WebProNews reader, you probably know how big Google’s Panda update was. If you don’t, you can learn all about it here. Long story short, Google launched a major algorithm update a couple years ago aimed at returning higher quality content in its search results. The move gave so-called “content farms” less incentive to flood the web with mediocre to poor content to serve ads on. It’s been a controversial move to say the least, and the update has been refreshed numerous times, and continues to plague some webmasters to this day.

Google is obviously one of the primary ways Internet users find content. Another is Facebook. Like Google, it’s one of the main gateways to information on the web. If you produce web content, you want people on Facebook to be able to find it, just as you want Google searchers to find it. While perhaps not to the extent of a Google update, a Facebook News Feed update can have a major impact on a website’s ability to attract pageviews and customers. Facebook updates have already been detrimental to companies in the past.

Facebook says the new changes may not be on the scale of the Google Panda update, but are “a step in that direction.”

In its announcement, the company said it is paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from the News Feed on mobile. There’s good news for publishers in that they’re going to start showing more links to articles, especially on mobile, where nearly half of Facebook users are accessing the social network exclusively.

“Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme,” says Facebook software engineer Varun Kacholia in a blog post. “Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

“To complement people’s interest in articles, we recently began looking at ways to show people additional articles similar to ones they had just read,” Kacholia adds. “Soon, after you click on a link to an article, you may see up to three related articles directly below the News Feed post to help you discover more content you may find interesting.”

Here’s what that looks like:

Facebook articles

Earlier this year, Facebook introduced the concept of “story bumping” to the News Feed algorithm. This is when Facebook “bumps” up a story in the News Feed because it’s getting a lot of likes and comments.

Facebook is now updating bumping to highlight stories with new comments. So now, you’re more likely to revisit a story that you saw before if your friends have commented on it.

“Our testing has shown that doing this in moderation for just a small number of stories can lead to more conversations between people and their friends on all types of content,” says Kacholia.

So there’s more to what Facebook is doing than the Pandaesque update, but that’s a major part of things, and Facebook News Feed manager Lars Backstrom opened up a bit more about it inan interview with All Things D’s Peter Kafka.

He says they’re not really looking to promote/demote types of content, but rather do a better job of “identifying value”.

“In the past, there were a lot of things that all fell into one bucket, and we would treat them all the same, even though they clearly weren’t,” Backstrom told Kafka. “If you see a funny meme photo in your feed — sure, you get some value from that. But if you compare that to reading 1,000 words on AllThingsD, you would presumably get more value from that experience than the first one. And, in the past, we were treating them as the same.”

Umm, with all due respect to All Things D, isn’t that a matter of preference – something illustrated by social interaction? Kafka basically suggested as much back to him. According to Backstrom, the surveys indicate people want the quality articles more than the cat photos. But in the end, doesn’t it really depend on the article and on the cat photo? And what happened to Facebook being about what people are sharing? People like to share cat photos. People like when other people share cat photos. If there’s one thing the Internet has proven it’s that. Also, I wonder how many of Facebook’s over a billion users were actually surveyed. I don’t remember being asked about this. Do you?

I’m not saying I personally don’t prefer a good article to a cat photo, but that’s beside the point.

Backstrom says Facebook is not trying to “impose its will” on people. He also admits that surveys “are not necessarily the truth,” but that treating “every single click as having the same value,” as in cat photo clicks vs. in-depth article clicks, would be “as naive”.

So the new way of doing things is naive too?

And here’s something that a lot of smaller sites aren’t going to like very much. Right now, the changes are “mostly oriented around the source,” according to Backstrom. So apparently brand is going to make a big difference right off the bat, regardless of how in-depth your content is.

Talk about the “filter bubble“.

People have been calling for an unfiltered Facebook news feed for years, and they kind of got one, when Facebook launched the Ticker. Earlier this year, Facebook launched the “new” News Feed. That was in March, and a lot of people still don’t have the design. Some variations of the design don’t include the ticker, and others have it down in the corner in a less noticeable part of the interface. The future of the feature is uncertain. A lot of content is going to only be visible via the Ticker, Graph Search or on actual Timelines. The News Feed is what everyone pays attention to.

Backstrom does say that Facebook will start “distinguishing more and more” between different types of content as it refines its approaches, so it might not all be based upon source in the future, even if it starts off that way. But who knows how long that will take? When does Facebook ever roll out things quickly?
Google did after the Panda update. That certainly didn’t appease everyone, but at least it was something. It’s a heck of a lot more to go on than what Facebook is giving people so far. Google’s list also included twenty-three bullet points. That’s a lot more consideration than just the source of the content.

It’s going to be harder to build a brand if Facebook – the biggest social service in the world – won’t acknowledge it to begin with.

While meme photos are mentioned specifically by Facebook as things that will be less visible, Backstrom told Kafka that this was just an example, and that it’s not targeting one category or another.

Apparently the kinds of posts that have a call to action (Backstrom gave Kafka the example of “one like = one respect“) that are designed to simply get likes, will not be doing so well with the update.

Asked if the update is targeting sites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy, he said that there are no specific targets, and that he doesn’t know how the changes will impact those sites. At the very least, it may affect those sites’ sharing tactics.

According to Backstrom, the changes aren’t going to eliminate funny Imgur photos and the like from your News Feed entirely. You just may see less of that kind of thing. I know some of us are at least hoping for less Bitstrips.

You have to wonder how all of this will affect Facebook’s teen problem non-problem.

Oh, did we mention that Facebook is also spreading the message that marketers are going to have to pay them if they want more visibility? AdAge reported this week:

If they haven’t already, many marketers will soon see the organic reach of their posts on the social network drop off, and this time Facebook is acknowledging it. In a sales deck obtained by Ad Age that was sent out to partners last month, the company states plainly: “We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.”

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