Facebook’s Latest News Feed Algorithm Should Be A Wake Up Call For Publishers

“Facebook has once again changed their News Feed algorithm, putting friends above publishers in “News Feed Values” and ranking change. Get ready to start seeing more posts of mom’s latest iteration of her famed tuna casserole, personal Facebook Live videos of your nephew streaming his latest play session on Xbox Live and less direct links to news that leads you outside of the Facebook mothership.

It is a large mothership.

facebook

As of March 31, 2016 Facebook had 1.65 billion monthly active users. There are approximately 7.4 billion people in the world. That means roughly 22.3% of the entire world’s population is on Facebook.

A colleague noted when he heard this news, “Facebook pretty much IS the Internet.” It’s hard to argue with that.

This is why Facebook has the ability to convince publishers to use Instant Articles and abandon a significant amount of direct traffic to their webpages. This is why Facebook is able to say they’re focusing on video and Facebook Live and actually pay publishers and celebrities to create this content directly on Facebook. This is also why Facebook can suddenly change the news feed algorithm to devalue all of this in favor of user generated content getting a higher priority.

They’re the mothership, and they do what’s best for the mothership in the end and that’s their prerogative. Says Harvard Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, “This is another step in the continued devaluation of large publisher followings on Facebook.”

Facebook is saying this change will result in lower reach and traffic to publishers from Facebook, with a Facebook boss telling CNN Senior Media Correspondent Brian Stelter that the News Feed “changes may have a ‘noticeable but small change’ in traffic to publishers.” Stelter follows this with the succinct, “Small?”

Stelter is dubious of the impact being “small” and he’s not alone in that sentiment for publishers heavily reliant on Facebook traffic.

Not everybody thinks this change is entirely a bad thing for publishers. When asked about the Facebook News Feed change FoxSport’s Deputy Director of Social News Teddy Mitrosilis told me, “It reemphasizes the most important thing and what’s been largely lost in digital media — creating a unique product for customers that’s worth their time and support. When digital media talks about ‘growing uniques’ and those things, we tend to forget our customers are actually people. Quality content that gets people to engage should still be rewarded.”

This is an incredibly important point for publishers to keep in mind because news content, now more than ever, is in fierce competition with mom’s casserole recipe, which to those in mom’s Facebook network, counts as quality content.

The audiences built on a publisher or brand’s Facebook page aren’t going way, they won’t just disappear. There is still value, even if that value is reduced. Where there will always be value is in the creation of quality content that is inherently shareable. Whereas before a piece of content would be tweaked to appeal to being shared from the brand Facebook page, now there will likely be more focus on delivering shareability — and quality — directly from an article page.

Quality content has a life beyond what gets clicked on Facebook. If what is created is compelling, readable, visual and engaging it works across a variety of distribution points.

Publishers aren’t screwed (generally speaking)

Publishers aren’t screwed with this latest algorithm change, even if they take a hit. Though the ones who base most of their entire traffic model around Facebook will have a more difficult time of it and in today’s digital publishing landscape every publisher to a degree relies upon Facebook for a decent portion of their traffic. That is, unless they’re DailyMail who gets the majority of traffic from their home page with misleading and outlandish headlines. But if publishers can adjust, be flexible and understand that if you live by the sword (Facebook) you can also die by the sword (also Facebook) then that’s a recipe for longevity and revenue.

The smart publisher isn’t pulling their hair out about the Facebook News Feed algorithm change (yet) because the smart publisher isn’t just reacting to what Facebook does, they’re already focused on quality content and they’re looking at a variety of distribution points.

In the grand scheme of things, after the dust settles a bit and the actual metrics start coming through on exactly how much this recent News Feed change impacts publisher’s traffic, those looking ahead and beyond a strategy purely reliant on Facebook traffic will work harder to keep readers on their site. In addition to their Facebook strategy they’ll focus on alternative ways of capturing audiences through newsletters, syndication, and utilizing partnership expansion and other social networks that best fit their business plan and audience target.

Time for other major platforms to step up

Major social networks that aren’t named Facebook would be wise to capitalize on this opportunity to better serve publishers. Sites like Reddit which has 1.1bn monthly uniques in the US could do more to work with publishers that are favorable to the Reddit community. I know of no editor or writer who doesn’t get excited when their story makes Reddit’s Front page.

Great for initiatives, branding and reputation, Twitter, while huge, has never been a particular major source of traffic for publishers when compared to Facebook, with quick bursts of traffic on trending topics but without lasting impact. Twitter needs to find a better way than “Moments” to highlight quality content and drive traffic to publishers. As a Twitter power user, I can count the times I’ve checked out Moments on one hand.

Twitter’s Moment’s hasn’t quite been the new Twitter signup driver and success Twitter hoped it would, even going into the negative after Moment’s launch.

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(Source: QZ.com)

There’s a real opportunity staring Twitter in the face right now. To more actively partner with publishers and encourage traffic back to publishers which would in turn incentivize publishers to create more content for Twitter which would then in turn encourage more readers to sign up for Twitter and broaden it out from the niche perception.

Of course there is Google, with evergreen and news SEO being the primary traffic drivers for publishers. But with Google AMP, even that is being devalued to a degree. Google is also a slightly harder nut to crack for early stage publishers, with their vague and mysterious vetting process to get accepted into Google News.

Google like Facebook can play by their own rules and the rest must conform to it. But those rules often conflict with creating content that is appealing on a multitude of platforms. SEO is a tricky beast and there is a science to crafting content that catches Google’s Sauron search’s eye. Not every content creator is adept at SEO, so maybe now is a great time for Google to make a push in communicating to publishers how to best take advantage of the behemoth of traffic potential they represent. Not a technical documentation that requires SEO consultants and experts to interpret and convey to publishers.

Also not a 30 page SEO starter guide with a cute robot…

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Really, Google? This from the same company with the amazing Google icons on important dates? You can do better than this. 

Take the lead Google. Want to promote AMP and surface the most relevant content for searched terms? Then help content creators get better by providing more digestible guidelines to succeed with Google.

Also, never mind G+. Just stop already.

Same idea for the other big platforms out there like Tumblr, Pinterest and the like.

Facebook will always do what they want, when they want. Says HuffPost’s Damon Beres, “You can control what you put on Facebook, but make no mistake: The company, its engineers and its algorithms are in charge of what you see.” A publisher either has to be completely OK with that or actively work to find alternative solutions for traffic and distribution. As much as I loathe to say it, the DailyMail has done it, and they’ve generally done it with lower quality content. Think about that. Imagine what can be done with quality content.

So while there are some very jittery social media editors, audience devs and Facebook focused publishers out there nervously biting their nails to the nub and wondering if they’ll be relevant in a few months, opportunities abound here and Facebook isn’t going away, its just changing once again.

Time for publishers to swallow that bitter decreasing Facebook traffic pill, focus on creating quality content, distribution diversification and engagement. Be smart about Facebook and have realistic ROI expectations. Be innovative. Experiment.

And time for other major distribution platforms to provide a wider variety of accessible options to publishers and content creators in driving traffic and building a lasting and realistic, monetizable audience.”

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