For you readers whose first language isn’t English and for you native English speakers who are under the age of… I don’t know, 30?… I’m using the word “sorry” not in the sense of “apologetic”, but in the sense of “inspiring scorn or ridicule”, as in, “what a sorry state of affairs we’re in now”.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about Facebook. This is because I prefer to stay happy as long as possible. Even after I noticed that the percentage of our site’s Facebook followers who were seeing NCS posts on Facebook was growing smaller and smaller in recent months, I didn’t try to find out why. And then, while I was on vacation recently, I heard from a fellow metal blogger with a poplar site who I respect, asking whether our Facebook page views were dropping. Of course, they were, and they were for his site too.
So I decided to try and find out why. I didn’t do as much research as I have in the past when I noticed such changes (e.g., here) — because I’m trying to stay happy as long as possible — but this article discusses what I found. I guess there’s some kind of lesson here for people in the metal community who rely on FB to stay in touch with their fans. But it’s a lesson that will be meaningful only until the next time Facebook changes its news feed algorithm. In other words, life is still full of pain, and then you die.
This much we’ve known for a while: Facebook uses software algorithms that determine what FB users will see in their news feeds. We also know that FB changes these algorithms on a continuing basis. They do this to serve two related objectives: They want to maintain and grow the number of consumers who use FB, and they want to make more and more money from people who might pay Facebook for various services, including advertising.
These objectives are related because the more consumers who use FB, the more advertisers (and other providers of services) will be incentivized to pay FB increasing amounts of money for access to that user base.
We also know that FB doesn’t always publicize the way they change their news feed algorithms, i.e., the rules that determine what will and won’t be deposited into your news feed. It would be easy for FB to put announcements in your news feed every time they do this, for example, but they don’t. I think, in part, this is because they don’t want to make it easier for bloodsucking douchebags to game their algorithms, and in part because most people just don’t care — and FB is interested (in part) in preventing you from seeing things in your news feed that they don’t think you care about.
And so, without knowing why, I noticed a change in the reach of the NCS posts on our FB page. As of this writing, we have 6,085 fans who have liked our FB page. With one exception, the only things I post on our FB page are notices of new posts on this here web site. The exception is that every day I post a piece of art.
FB tells me how many people see my NCS FB posts. For the vast majority of our Page posts — the ones that link to articles on NCS — we now reach about 5-10% of those 6,085 people who have liked our page. The art posts typically do better than that, getting up into the 10-20% range. But overall, this is a big drop from where we used to be.
What gives? I’m sure I know only a small fraction of what FB has done to produce that change, but here’s what I’ve learned (I’ve linked to my sources at the end of this article).
The key to FB’s maintenance and growth of its user base is engagement. FB not only wants registered FB users to visit their news feeds, it wants them to like, share, and comment. It wants people to be interested in what they find, and it wants to see evidence of that in the way those 1.1 billion users react to what they see in their news feeds. What FB doesn’t want is for users to become annoyed. Here’s a passage from one of the sources cited below:
“A few years ago companies like Demand Media capitalized on the media discovery of choice, search engines, to build large audiences. These companies gamed the Google Search algorithm, but Google users quickly became annoyed with SEO content distracting them from finding the results they wanted. In turn, Google changed its algorithms when it began noticing user dissatisfaction with search results…
“Facebook users will eventually start to show distaste for content that is clearly made to bait users with headlines that seem interesting and entertaining. Once user behavior demonstrates this, Facebook will enhance its algorithms again to favor even more engaging and valuable content. Companies like Distractify and Upworthy will struggle in the same way Demand Media did. “
With that background, you can better understand one of the rare public announcements that FB made on December 2. I’m going to summarize the announcement, and then quote it in full at the end of this post (partly because things like this have a way of disappearing from FB’s pages).
FB knows that certain Pages bait users into clicking through to their sites with gimmicks of various kinds, such as internet memes; I’m guessing that photos of hot babes are another example, though FB didn’t mention it. FB isn’t happy about this. It thinks this will annoy its users and devalue the news feed. It wants to increase the quality of what appears in news feeds — as FB defines “quality”, of course. So FB says that it has adjusted its algorithms to reduce the appearance of links to other sites through the use of come-ons like memes and increase the appearance of links to what it calls “high quality articles”.
FB has further explained: “To complement people’s interest in articles, we recently began looking at ways to show people additional articles similar to ones they had just read. Soon, after you click on a link to an article, you may see up to three related articles directly below the News Feed post to help you discover more content you may find interesting.” Which I guess is what explains things like this:
Let’s put to one side the question of how FB defines “high quality” (I’m putting this to one side because there’s no clear answer to that question). Let’s focus on the consequences of this change. Here’s what FB itself said on December 5:
“People are connecting and sharing more than ever. On a given day, when someone visits News Feed, there are an average of 1,500 possible stories we can show.
“As a result, competition for each News Feed story is increasing. Because the content in News Feed is always changing, and we’re seeing more people sharing more content, Pages will likely see changes in distribution. For many Pages, this includes a decline in organic reach. We expect this trend to continue as the competition for each story remains strong and we focus on quality.”
In other words, the news feed is a finite space, and as FB increases the appearance of certain kinds of content into the feed (e.g., links to “high quality articles”), other types of FB page posts are going to be filtered out and not seen.
Now here’s the kicker. In the same article by FB quoted above, they tell you what you can do if you run a Page whose “organic reach” is declining as a result of FB’s algorithm changes:
“As the dynamic nature of News Feed continues to follow people’s patterns of sharing, Page owners should continue using the most effective strategy to reach the right people: a combination of engaging Page posts and advertising to promote your message more broadly. Advertising lets Pages reach the fans they already have and find new customers as well. The fans you have matter. In addition to being some of the most loyal customers,fans also make the advertising on Facebook even more effective.”
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? One way of looking at this change — which is just the latest in a long line of changes in the same vein — is that FB is weeding out people who use FB to make money without paying FB for the privilege (e.g., the sites that use memes and other forms of bait on FB to lure users into click through to their web pages) and providing what used to be normal levels of “reach” only to those willing to pay for it. But in the course of doing this, they’re also weeding out people like us.
I would like to feel angry about this, but the emotion I’m mainly experiencing is bleakness. I feel like listening to doom instead of powerviolence. Because I actually get where FB is coming from. I understand what they’re trying to do. I can’t even really fault them; they are, after all, a for-profit business. It’s just that niche interests like metal are getting caught in a fight that we didn’t start.
(As an aside, I am still a little perplexed about why the reach of our NCS FB posts has dropped so dramatically. We link to articles, and we make no money from our site. I guess we’re not of sufficiently “high quality”, whatever that means.)
The real problem is that NCS and other metal blogs, and metal bands, and metal labels, and metal fans — and basically everyone associated with metal — are all so, so small and powerless. We’re beneath notice. We have nothing to do with the decisions that are being made that affect the reach of our efforts to interact with each other. We just take the consequences of those decisions. We’re like a microbe on the asshole of the elephant that is Facebook, and when the elephant takes a shit, we just drop down in a big liquid splat on the savannah and are left there to bake in the sun.
It’s a real shame. The irony is that we’re caught in a tug of war among money-hungry forces when the hunger for money really isn’t what drives 99.99999% of the people in metal. Yes, bands and labels try to make a bit of money, usually not for its own sake, but so they can continue recording music and performing, putting gas in the tour van, pressing vinyl, dubbing tapes — doing what they love. They don’t try to sucker people into clicking through to bullshit web sites that make money from page views. They don’t try to fleece people into buying things they really don’t want. They mainly just want to stay in touch, let people know what they’re up to, and provide ways for people to hear music and buy it if they like it.
And now staying in touch via FB has become even more difficult, and it appears that trend is going to continue.
Is there any way to counteract what is happening? Honestly, I doubt it. I think the only way to fight a rear-guard action against this blitzkrieg is to promote engagement. If you’re a FB Page admin (e.g., the person who runs the FB page for a band, a label, a blog, whatever), you can encourage your Page followers to engage with your posts by liking, sharing, and commenting on them. That will increase the chances that followers who do this will continue seeing your Page posts in their news feeds.
Here’s a vivid example of this effect that I saw on our own FB Page a few days ago. I posted an article here at NCS called “Hipster?”. As usual, I posted a link to the article on our FB page. For whatever reason, the post on our FB page about the article drew 24 comments — far more than usual. And FB tells me that 1,566 people have now seen that FB post, which is almost 26% of our total FB followers. By current standards, that’s a dramatically higher percentage than our usual reach. Of course, it’s still a small minority of everyone who has liked our page.
I think this also explains why my daily artwork posts on our FB Page reach a significantly higher percentage of NCS followers on FB than the links to our articles on this site: on average, far more people go to the trouble of “liking” those artwork posts than those who “like” the article links.
The problem is that if you proactively ask your FB fans to like, share, and comment, it comes off as begging. It’s kind of unseemly. But it may be the only recourse you’ve got. So you could think about a message like this — which you would have to post on FB repeatedly, because a small fraction of your followers will ever see any one of them:
Facebook continues to make changes that reduce who will see us in their news feeds. If you want to increase the chances of seeing what we post on FB, the best thing you can do is like, share, and comment on what we post.
It may kind of come off like begging, but it’s better than the alternative: “If you want to see what we post on FB, please send us money so we can pay FB for ads and promotion of our posts.”
And that’s the end of this rant. Below is the full text of the FB announcement I summarized earlier, followed by links to the sources of info I used in writing this thing.
The goal of News Feed is to show the right content to the right people at the right time whether it’s from a close friend or a news source halfway across the world. In the last year, more people found news on Facebook than ever before. In fact, as reported in October, average referral traffic from Facebook to media sites has increased by over 170% – almost tripled – in the past year. Today’s update to News Feed ranking recognizes that people want to see more relevant news and what their friends have to say about it.
More relevant articles in Feed
People use Facebook to share and connect, including staying current on the latest news, whether it’s about their favorite celebrity or what’s happening in the world. We’ve noticed that people enjoy seeing articles on Facebook, and so we’re now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from News Feed on mobile. What this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile).
Why are we doing this? 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.
To complement people’s interest in articles, we recently began looking at ways to show people additional articles similar to ones they had just read. Soon, after you click on a link to an article, you may see up to three related articles directly below the News Feed post to help you discover more content you may find interesting.
While trying to show more articles people want to read, we also don’t want people to miss the conversations among their friends. So we’re updating bumping to highlight stories with new comments. After people read a story, they are unlikely to go back and find that story again to see what their friends were saying about it, and it wouldn’t bump up in News Feed. With this update stories will occasionally resurface that have new comments from friends.
As a result, people may start seeing a few more stories returning to their feed with new comments highlighted. Our testing has shown that doing this in moderation for just a small number of stories can lead to more conversations between people and their friends on all types of content.
We’ll continue to keep you posted on the updates we make in response to people’s feedback. Stay tuned for more.