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Here’s Why BuzzFeed Can Still Get Facebook Traffic While You Can’t

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Some popular viral content sites have suffered drastic traffic declines since Facebook implemented its News Feed algorithm changes in December, which some have dubbed, for all intents and purposes, Facebook’s “Panda” update.

Has your Page been affected by the changes? Let us know in the comments.

Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider shared some traffic charts for such sites, including Upworthy, Elite Daily, and Distractify. They’ve all been on the decline since Facebook implemented its changes. Upworthy, one of the most well-known of such sites, has seen a 46% decline in traffic over two months, though the site’s co-founder told Carlson it’s more about Upworthy having a “crazy spike” in November than any ill effects from the Facebook update. As noted in the report, the last two months were better than October for the site.

But there’s no question many Pages have experienced a dramatic decline in News Feed visibility since the changes. Some perhaps deservedly so (for Facebook’s purposes at least), and others not so much. In fact, the update is not entirely unlike Google’s Panda update in that way.

Another way in which the two are alike is that neither initially penalized what many would deem the primary examples of publishers producing the types of content that the updates seemed designed to penalize. Demand Media’s eHow was the most widely noted example of a “content farm,” which is basically what Panda was supposed to go after, but the update did not hit the site at first (though that would change later).

BuzzFeed is likely the most widely noted example of a publisher putting out the type of content Facebook seemed to want to reduce in the News Feed, but as Carlson points out, it has only grown its traffic since the update.

Let’s look at some things Facebook said when it announced the update. Engineering manager Varun Kacholia said, “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. 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.”

Perhaps BuzzFeed more often publishes lists of memes or silly photos than just singular memes or silly photos, but most would probably assume this stuff would fall more into the category of things Facebook wanted to show less of as opposed to the “high quality articles” category. You what I’m talking about. Take, for example, this gem from BuzzFeed’s homepage from a couple hours ago:

Just look at all that early Facebook engagement. 227 shares and 772 likes. Again, I stress, that’s only a couple hours old.

Clearly this is the kind of high quality stuff Facebook is looking for.

Carlson raised the question: What makes BuzzFeed so special? You know, compared to other sites like Upworthy and the like. One theory he brings up is that BuzzFeed “pays to play”. They create advertorials on their site, and buy Facebook ads to drive traffic to them. Apparently not incredibly enthusiastic with this explanation, BuzzFeed CEO offered an alternative in an email to Carlson, which is basically that Facebook wants sites like BuzzFeed to “invest in better and better content” that makes its network more valuable.

Carlson also got a quote from Facebook on the matter saying that, “Organic News Feed ranking is not impacted at all by ads. We try to show people the things they will find the most interesting based on what and who they interact with, not who spends money on Facebook.”

Yes, BuzzFeed has content that one would consider actual journalism. It’s certainly not the vast majority of what BuzzFeed has to offer (I have no idea what the site’s ratio of silly lists to actual journalistic pieces is), but it does have it. But so do other sites that have seen less visibility in the Facebook feed.

What this is really about is likely Facebook’s shockingly unsophisticated methods for determining quality. The company has basically said as much. Peter Kafka at All Things D (now at Re/code) published an interview with Facebook News Feed manager Lars Backstrom right after the update was announced.

He said flat out, “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.”

That’s what it comes down to, it seems. If your site has managed to make the cut at the source level for Facebook, you should be good regardless of how many GIF lists you have in comparison to journalistic stories. It would seem that BuzzFeed had already done enough to be considered a viable source by Facebook, while others who have suffered major traffic hits had not. In other words, Facebook is playing favorites, and the list of favorites is an unknown.

Just to make this point clear, Kafka asked in that interview, “So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publishers Y, it’s low quality?”

Backstrom’s answer was simply, “Yes.”

So as long as BuzzFeed is publisher X, it can post as many poop lists as it wants with no repercussions, apparently. It’s already white-listed. Meanwhile, you can be publisher Y and beak the news about the next natural disaster, and it means nothing. At least not until Facebook’s methods get more sophisticated.

Well, we already knew Facebook liked BuzzFeed. A couple months before the News Feed update, Facebook was already talking up how BuzzFeed could increase its referral traffic by 855% by posting more frequently.

The real question is: how can you prove your site’s value to Facebook? It’s going to be hard to prove it with engagement when Facebook’s not showing your content to people in the first place.

Do you think Facebook’s algorithm will get better at determining what content is of a higher quality? What are some signals it should consider beyond source? Share your thoughts.

Update: BuzzFeed’s “The Definitive Ranking Of Poop” now has over 500 Facebook shares and 1.2 Facebook likes in just over three hours.

Update 2: A day later, and the shares are up to 2K with likes at 7.7K.

Update 3: Early on day three: still in the 2K range for shares with likes up to 8.8K.

Image via BuzzFeed

Here’s Why BuzzFeed Can Still Get Facebook Traffic While You Can’t
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