Once Again, Facebook Denies ‘Bait-and-Switch’ with Promoted Posts. Do You Believe Them?

    March 6, 2013
    Josh Wolford

In May of 2012, Facebook unveiled a brand new feature for page owners. It was called “Promoted Posts,” and it allowed admins to pay a small to medium fee (depending on the follower base) in order to hoist their posts to a more prominent placement in users’ news feeds. Basically, it allowed page owners to make sure their most important posts were seen by more people, and provided a great revenue opportunity for Facebook.

A few months later, Facebook extended the Promoted Posts functionality to individual users. By October, anyone with an account could pay to promote their witty status, cool new article, or cute new baby photo.

Ok, cool. So far so good. You may think that the entire Promoted Posts concept is wacky, but hey, to each his own. As a page owner, you could simply choose not to participate in Promoted Posts and go about your business as usual – simply posting away.

As a page owner, have you seen your average engagement decrease since the launch of Promoted Posts? Have you used Promoted Posts? Let us know in the comments.

Of course, that zen-like mentality could quickly disappear if, let’s say, Facebook was rigging the game. And that’s exactly what some page owners began accusing Facebook of late last year: one giant bait-and-switch.

The “Bait-and-Switch”

Reports emerged that Facebook was deliberately decreasing the reach of regular, non-promoted posts in order to force people into paying for the Promoted Post product. In fact, that was the whole point of unveiling the feature – to cast un-promoted posts into oblivion so that people would see such a small return (likes, comments, and shares) that they would have no choice but to pay to promote.

Most of the claims hinged on the simple observation by the accusers that posts published on their Facebook pages were not driving the traffic that they used to – which naturally meant that not as many people were seeing the posts in their news feeds. How could my likes be increasing, but my traffic from Facebook be decreasing?

The common conclusion from people like Richard Metzger at Dangerous Times and even popular Facebook celebrities like George Takei (who hopped on the bandwagon) was that Facebook was turning down the volume on their regular posts.

Although the accusation gained plenty of steam inside the tech media circles, Facebook maintained its innocence in the matter. The company said, point blank, that they did not decrease the visibility of page posts in order to force people into buying Promoted Posts.

And there was some pretty compelling evidence to support Facebook’s innocence. Facebook has admitted that only around 16% or so of a page’s followers even see their posts in the news feed. It’s always been like this. Facebook has never been able to show 100% of followers 100% of posts from pages and people they subscribe to. There’s simply too much competition for real estate in the news feed. As users begin to friend more and more people and like more and more pages, their overall engagement with each individual person and page is going naturally decrease.

Josh Constine over at TechCrunch suggested that a move that Facebook made to fight spam had actually been one of the root causes of the so-called “visibility decreases” that many page owners were reporting.

“We made a relatively large ranking change in September that was designed to reduce spam complaints from users. We used [spam] reports at an aggregate level to find Pages or apps generating a lot of reports [and decrease their reach]. We’ve also added personalized attempts to reduce presence of posts you’re likely to complain about,” said Facebook.

In short, the less engaging your posts were, the less likely they were to show up in your followers’ news feeds.

And the push to control spammy posts is simply one news feed algorithm tweak that Facebook made – and they make a bunch, all the time. Facebook is constantly changing the way its algorithms decide what shows up in whose news feed. The bottom line, according to those who believed Facebook, was that sure, your post reach could be fluctuating (or even simply decreasing), but it’s not because Facebook is pulling a bait-and-switch with Promoted Posts.

Still, page owners continued to complain that for them, personally, they were seeing less return from their posts. Sure, you can throw graphs and excuses at the issue, but you can’t explain that the decrease in visibility coincided with the dawn of Promoted Posts. Although Facebook has been adamant that they are not pulling this “bait-and-switch,” many page owners and public figures with many subscribers have remained unconvinced.

New Accusations

Fast forward to a couple of days ago and to an article by Nick Bilton in the the New York Times’ “Bits” tech blog. It begins, “something is puzzling on Facebook.”

What it asserts is the same argument that we discussed above: Facebook is screwing you. Hard.

His story picks up soon after Facebook first allowed users to “subscribe” to public figures back in 2011. At that point, he had about 25,000 subscribers and his average article post on Facebook would receive a few hundred likes and at least a few dozen shares (535 likes and 53 shares or 323 likes and 88 shares, numbers like that).

Today, he has over 400,000 subscribers. If you think that means the number of likes and shares per post will have increased 16-fold, you’re wrong.

“From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred,” says Bilton.

So, he tested out a Promoted Post. After paying $7 to get one of his article posts promoted by Facebook, he says that he saw a 1,000% increase in interaction in a few hours.

“It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for,” he concludes.

Fact Check

Although Facebook has been denying this claim for months and months, this week was the first time that they published a lengthy “fact check” post on the topic.

In it, Facebook unequivocally states that it’s a false allegation.

“There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true.”

Facebook says that in reality, engagement has increased among people who allow subscribers – 34%, in fact. That means likes, comments, and shares.

“News Feed shows the most relevant stories from your friends, people you follow and Pages you are connected to. In fact, the News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don’t replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones,” says Facebook.

The “fact check” post seems to stem directly from and come as a pointed rebuttal to Bilton’s NYT article. Twice, Facebook makes a point to say that you can’t just compare anecdotal evidence from separate posts that occurred years apart.

The argument here is based on a few anecdotes of one post from one year to a totally different post from another year.This is an apples-to-oranges comparison; you can’t compare engagement rates on two different posts year over year.

For early adopters of Follow, we do see instances where their follower numbers have gone up but their engagement has gone down from a year ago. When we first launched Follow, the press coverage combined with our marketing efforts drove large adoption. A lot of users started following public figures who had turned on Follow. Over time, some of those users engaged less with those figures, and so we started showing fewer stories from those figures to users who didn’t engage as much with their stories. The News Feed changes we made in the fall to focus on higher quality stories may have also decreased the distribution for less engaging stories from public figures.

Read: that aforementioned spam adjustment. Facebook is saying that yes, we adjust the news feed algorithm to show users more relevant posts, but we are in no way decreasing organic reach to force our Promoted Posts product on people.

All this being said, Facebook is taking it head on. For many Facebook users, trust in Big Blue isn’t a common emotion. For page owners and popular figures who have seen their engagement decline, it may be hard to swallow that there’s not something malicious going on here.

Do you believe Facebook when they say that they are not decreasing visibility of non-promoted posts in order to generate revenue from Promoted Posts? Let us know in the comments.