Facebook seems to be making users upset and/or confused again with the way it handles its news feed. A few months ago, it was actor George Takei and billionaire Mark Cuban who were upset with what they saw as changes to the Facebook algorithm that made their content less visible, and this time around it’s New York Times writer Nick Bilton, who complains that his posts haven’t been getting as many likes or shares as they used to. The assumption is that Facebook wants you to pay to get this kind of reach. Whether or not this is happening, it still sends a valuable message: You are not in control; Facebook is.
Bilton described in a piece for the Bits section of the Times how his posts used to get as many as 50 or even 100 likes and shares from Facebook users who had signed up to get his feed, using the network’s relatively new Subscribe feature. But even though the number of users who subscribe has soared, from 25,000 after the feature was launched to almost half a million now, Bilton said he gets far fewer responses to his posts—sometimes as little as 10 or 15 likes and shares. On one occasion that Bilton paid Facebook to promote his posts, however, that number increased by almost 1,000 percent.
I’ve noticed the same phenomenon as Bilton with my own feed, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. While Bilton has almost half-a-million subscribers, I have about 75,000—but I, too, have found that the content I post is getting a lot less interaction than in the early days of the feature. I haven’t experimented with paying Facebook to promote my posts, but I have no doubt I would see the same kind of increase in activity if I did. That’s kind of the whole point. (Facebook is holding a news event on March 7 that could include an announcement of further changes to the news feed.)
The conclusion that everyone seems to be jumping to is the same one that Mark Cuban arrived at when he complained in November about the increasing difficulty of reaching his fans on the network: that Facebook is deliberately tuning out (or at least turning down) the signal coming from some users so that it can convince them to use such promotional tools as ads and “sponsored stories.” Cuban said he was so annoyed by the move that he was diverting almost all the marketing budget from his various brands from Facebook to Twitter and other platforms.
Facebook then gave much the same response that it has since made to Bilton’s column (as reported by my GigaOM colleague Eliza Kern): it said that it tweaks its ranking algorithms all the time in order to try to decrease spam and increase the visibility of content that users like, and said that this is not an attempt to market services such as advertising and various promotional features. An official post on the Facebook site, titled “Fact Check,” says: “Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest. 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.”
It’s worth noting that former YouTube executive-turned-venture-capitalist Hunter Walk came up with some alternate theories as to why Bilton and others might have seen a drop-off in their likes and shares, including the possibility that some of the followers and subscribers that boosted those numbers might have been spam accounts or bots that have lost interest. I certainly noticed after the “Subscribe” feature launched that I got a lot of spammy responses, as well as likes and shares; those have died down as well. In that sense, decreasing the amount of activity would qualify as a good thing.
Zach Seward of Quartz offered an additional theory that I think has a lot of merit: In a comment on Walk’s post, he noted that Facebook often devotes a substantial amount of energy promoting new features, such as the subscription offering and the “social newsreader” offerings that were launched by a number of newspapers, including the Guardian and the Washington Post. After a certain time, the network almost always tweaks the ranking algorithm so that these new features are downplayed relative to when they were launched, often causing problems for those who relied on them.
The bottom line, of course, is that there is no way for anyone to know why Facebook’s algorithm behaves the way it does, any more than it’s possible for us to know why certain pages rank high in Google. Both are black boxes with mysterious functionings. As I tried to point out to Cuban in my post, Facebook is entitled to do whatever it wants with your news feed, including using it to convince you to pay for promotional tools, because it owns the news feeds. You don’t. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.
Also from GigaOM:
Social Networkers Survey: How to Compete with Facebook in 2013 (subscription required)