You've probably noticed that the organic reach of your Facebook Page posts has declined significantly over the past year or so. Probably not coincidentally, Facebook has been running a series of "News Feed FYI" announcements since August of 2013. While it's pretty much an accepted fact at this point that Facebook is more of a pay-to-play game now, Pages are still desperate to find ways to get in front of the people that took the time to "like" them because they wanted to get updates in their News Feed. Sometimes, especially for smaller businesses and those that aren't even making money, "pay-to-play" just isn't in the budget.
Can you effectively play the Facebook game without paying for reach? Let us know what you think.
With that, it's a good time to stop and take stock of just what all Facebook has actually said about News Feed ranking over this time. Following are some things you need to know - straight from the horse's mouth. While it's obviously good to try and read between the lines, it may also be helpful to remember exactly what Facebook has said in the first place, as countless marketers and blogs have provided so much analysis and speculation.
1. Facebook Only Highlights "Major" Updates
When Facebook first announced its series of blog posts last year, it noted that it was only highlighting "major" updates. Obviously businesses would like to know about all the algorithm's signals, but that's just not going to happen. The point is that while Facebook will tell us about specific signals from time to time, you have to remember that that these are only small parts of a big thing. They're also the things Facebook feels comfortable enough to share with people without worrying that the signals will be gamed. They're not going to highlight those that can be best taken advantage of.
2. Each of Your Posts Is Competing With Roughly 1,500 Others, And Facebook Prioritizes 300 Of Them
On August 6, 2013, Facebook said, "Every time someone visits News Feed there are on average 1,500 potential stories from friends, people they follow and Pages for them to see, and most people don’t have enough time to see them all."
The company went on to say that it prioritizes an average of 300 stories out of these 1,500 to show each day. It said it was taking the following signals into account: how often the user interacts with the friend, page, or public figure; the number of likes, sahres, and comments a post receives from the world at large and from friends in particular; how much the user has interacted with the post type in the past; and whether or not the user and other people across Facebook are hiding or reporting a given post.
Facebook also introduced an update at the time to show organic stories people didn't scroll down far enough to see at the top of the news Feed.
3. The "High Quality" Algorithm
On August 23, 2013, Facebook announced that it developed a new algorithm to factor into News Feed, aimed at determining "high quality content". Factors mentioned as taken into consideration include: timeliness, relevance, trustworthy source, likelihood of sharing/recommending to others, how interesting it is, whether or not people would complain about it, how frequently content from the page is reported as low quality (hiding a Page post), how complete the Page profile is, and fan-base overlap with other high quality pages. Still, the system uses "over a thousand different factors," and that algorithm itself is just a factor in the overall ranking of a News Feed story.
When this algorithm was announced, Facebook specifically told pages to: "Make sure your posts are timely and relevant," "Build credibility and trust with your audience," "Ask yourself, 'Would people share this with their friends or recommend it to others?," and "Think about, 'Would my audience want to see this in their News Feeds?"
4. Facebook Suggests News And Publishing Sites Post More Frequently
With all the posts Pages must compete with, it was interesting that Facebook implied that posting more frequently sent sites more traffic. In October, Facebook talked about how it was working "closely" with some news and publishing sites to understand how to drive more readers to their sites. I've asked Facebook for the complete list of publishers involved in the past for more analysis on this, but the company would not disclose it. We do know that Time, BuzzFeed, and Bleacher Report were among participants. It worked with 29 publishers in all.
Facebook did say this at the time: "We worked with 29 media sites over a seven-day period to find out exactly how their referral traffic could be impacted if they increased the number of times they posted to their Facebook pages. The net result: posting more frequently increases referral traffic by over 80%."
This is particularly interesting, as we've seen various people recently claiming that posting less is helping their reach.
"Within that week, the media sites averaged an increase in the number of articles they posted to their pages by 57%," Facebook said. "This resulted in an 89% increase in average outbound clicks to their domains. Additionally, the amount of Likes per post increased by over 10% and the number of net fans per page went up by 49%."
The company did make a point to note that the test it ran with this small number of media sites doesn't represent every type of Facebook page. It also said there's no magic number of how many more posts will impact referral traffic.
5. Facebook Wants To Show More Articles, Mobile Clicks Matter
Facebook said in early December that it would start showing users more links to articles, and that it was "paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from news Feed on mobile.
The company also revealed at the same time that it would start "bumping" up stories that have new comments, though a more recent update seems to suggest that they've pulled back on that a little.
6. Facebook Says Organic Reach Decline Will Continue
In December, Facebook acknowledged a widespread decline in organic reach, and said that it expected the trend to continue "as competition for each story remains strong" and it "focuses on quality."
It specifically recommended Pages use a "combination of engaging Page posts and advertising".
7. Facebook Basically Whitelists Sites For Quality
Also in December,Peter Kafka posted an interview with Facebook News Feed manager Lars Backstrom at All Things D. Kafka asked if Facebook was paying attention to the source of the content when determining if a post is of high quality.
Backstrom said, "Right now, it’s mostly oriented around the source. As we refine our approaches, we’ll start distinguishing more and more between different types of content. But, for right now, when we think about how we identify 'high quality,' it’s mostly at the source level."
Kafka followed up, "So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publisher Y, it’s low quality?"
Backstrom said, "Yes."
So that's pretty much a whitelist. If you're lucky enough to make it onto Facebook's list of high quality sites, you should be good to go. Congratulations, BuzzFeed.
It's unclear how much Facebook's algorithm has evolved on this since then.
8. Text Updates From Pages Are Officially Rendered A Lost Cause
In January, Facebook said that in testing, people who write more text status updates see more text status updates from friends on Facebook. It also said that the effect wasn't the same for text status updates from Pages. At that time, Facebook launched an update to News Feed ranking to treat text status updates from Pages a a completely different category to such updates from friends. The company said flat out that Page admins can "expect a decrease in the distribution of their text status updates". They also said, however, that they may see increases in engagement and distribution of other story types.
9. The Best Way To Share A Link Is To Use A Link-Share
In that same announcement, Facebook said: "The best way to share a link after this update will be to use a link-share...We’ve found that, as compared to sharing links by embedding in status updates, these posts get more engagement (more likes, comments, shares and clicks) and they provide a more visual and compelling experience for people seeing them in their feeds."
10. Facebook Encourages Pages To Tag Other Pages
In February, Facebook said that when a Page tags another Page, it may show the post to some of the people who like or follow the tagged page. For users, that means seeing more content from Pages they didn't actually "like," but for Pages it means a chance to get in front of some other users, and possibly get some more likes.
For this, Facebook said it considers which posts are getting the most engagement from people who like both the Page that posted and the Page that was tagged.
11. Facebook Doesn't Like Like-Baiting, Frequently Circulated Content, or Spammy Links
In April, Facebook announced that it was specifically targeting these three types of content to stop showing people in their News Feeds. It doesn't want to show users posts that explicitly ask readers to like, comment, or share a post. It doesn't want to show photos or videos that have been uploaded to Facebook over and over again, and it doesn't want to show spammy links that attempt to trick users.
12. Facebook Says There Are 2 Reasons Organic Reach is Declining, And Money Isn't One of Them
Controversy surrounding organic reach had been rampant all year long, and in June, Facebook finally addressed the situation again. The company said that there are two main reasons for the decline. The first is that more content is being created and shared, so the competition is high. The second is that the algorithm wants to show relevant content as opposed to all content.
According to Facebook, it's not dropping organic reach because Facebook is "trying to make more money." Obviously some are skeptical about that, especially since the company used a good portion of the blog post in which it said that to talk about all the ways to use Facebook ads.
13. Facebook Combats Click-Bait Headlines by Looking At Time On Page And Reader Engagement
In August, Facebook announced that it would be trying to reduce click-bait articles in News Feed because readers want more valuable content. It said it would take a couple of factors into consideration to determine whether or not a post was of the click-bait variety. One factor is how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook.
"If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable," the company said. "If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them."
The other factor is the ratio of people clicking on the content compared to people discussing and liking/sharing it with their friends.
14. Facebook Doesn't Like Links In Photo Captions
Also in August, Facebook reiterated that it wants Pages to use link shares to share links, rather than post them in status updates. This time it also made a point to say it will show fewer links shared in photo captions. It had become popular for Pages to do that, as photos tend to see better reach than link posts. After this update, Facebook would supposedly prioritize links shared in the link format.
15. Facebook Says Users Are Ultimately Responsible For What Appears In Their News Feed
Regardless of all of Facebook's ranking signals and algorithms, Facebook told us last month that users are ultimately responsible for what appears in their News Feed. That was their reaction after an article depicting some major flaws in the algorithms became highly publicized thanks to some testing by Wired's Mat Honan. Facebook told us in an email:
Your News Feed is made by you. If you like it, you will see more of it. When you become friends with someone new, or add a new Page, you will begin to see content from them immediately. In the example you reference, a person connected with over 1000 new pages in 48 hours, and his News Feed changed to show him mostly Page content, triggered by these new connections. If he had made 1000 new friends in 48 hours, his News Feed would be mostly new friend content.
What your friends see is determined by what you share with them, and whether or not they like it.
For example, if you typically post a new photo every day, and when your friends see that photo in your News Feed they like and comment on it, this tells News Feed those friends like seeing photos from you. If you suddenly starts posting 20 photos each day, News Feed will show your friends these photos. If your friends stop liking your photos, (or even better, hide them), News Feed will quickly learn that your friends prefer not to see these photos from you in future, or that they prefer to see fewer of them. In the example you reference above, the person’s friends had probably liked seeing articles and Pages he’d connected with in the past. However, when the volume increased dramatically, they saw too many of them. News Feed will learn over time not to show this kind of content to his friends.
16. Talking About Trending Topics Matters
In its most recent News Feed update announcement, Facebook said that when a friend or Page a user is connected to posts something about a current trending topic, it is more likely to appear higher up in the News Feed. This would seem to be an incentive for Pages to post about current hot topics. It's probably a good idea to save this for when a topic has some relation to what you actually do.
17. When People Like or Comment On Your Post Matters
Another part of the most recent update factors in when people comment or like a post. Facebook is more likely to show a post that gets likes and comments quickly, and less likely to show an older post as it gets new likes or comments.
18. Facebook Hasn't Said Much About Recent Manipulations
There have been some articles in the media about people gaming Facebook's algorithm using certain trigger words, and forcing content to users' News Feeds. Facebook has been oddly quiet about this, even when asked about it. That email they sent us, which I referenced above was in response to the Mat Honan situation, but in that same inquiry, we also asked about this kind of gaming, and they just didn't respond to that part of the question.
My guess is that they'll get better at this over time, and frankly, the tactics that have been used in these tests would probably only serve to annoy users, and therefore wouldn't be that valuable to a Page abusing them. That said, this could potentially be problematic.
This is just about everything I can find that Facebook has actually said on the topic of how it ranks content in the News Feed over the past year or so. Of course, there are a whole lot of people doing their own testing and forming their own theories, about how to restore reach and visibility on Facebook. How much of it is in line with what Facebook has told us?
After all of this, do you feel like the Facebook experience has become better? Can you get any significant marketing power out of Facebook Pages without paying for it? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Images via Facebook