Aw hell, here we go again.
The writing has been on the Facebook wall for a while, and I’m not talking about your writing. I’m talking about the invisible writing of Facebook’s programmers, the increasingly demonic sigils inscribed into the backbone of the Facebook monolith that determine what its users will and won’t see in their news feeds.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written on the subject of how Facebook manipulates the selection of content that each user will see, but the story is a continuing one, with a consistent theme. This is just the latest chapter in the company’s efforts to leverage their gargantuan user base for the extraction of more advertising dollars — including money that Facebook Pages can spend to “promote” their posts so that more people will see them.
Honestly, on a day-to-day basis I don’t pay much attention to developments such as the one I’m about to describe. Other people watch Facebook’s moves like a hawk, because they can have a big effect on big bidness. I generally avoid the subject because it makes me queasy. But my fellow metal blogger Angry Metal Guy recently alerted me to a new piece of intelligence that confirmed some of my recent suspicions — and I’m writing about it because misery really does love company.
If you use Facebook, the fact is that you probably wouldn’t see every post by every friend and every Page you follow even if Facebook automatically fed everything into your news feed. But they don’t feed everything to you. They use software algorithms called EdgeRank that pick and choose what you see. (Actually, because I haven’t been paying close attention, maybe they’re now calling that something like HugsAndKisses or We’reInYourPants instead of EdgeRank.)
In part they pick and choose what they think you want to see, based on the way you use Facebook. But in part they pick and choose things you undoubtedly DON’T want to see because advertisers are paying FB to shove their content into your eyeballs.
The more paid content FB puts into your news feed, the less likely it is that you will see the un-paid content. That’s partly just a function of the limited time most users have to scroll through their news feed. But it’s more than that — which finally brings me to the subject of this post.
On Wednesday of this past week, a web site called Valleywag posted this report:
A source professionally familiar with Facebook’s marketing strategy, who requested to remain anonymous, tells Valleywag that the social network is “in the process of” slashing “organic page reach” down to 1 or 2 percent. This would affect “all brands”—meaning an advertising giant like Nike, which has spent a great deal of internet effort collecting over 16 million Facebook likes, would only be able to affect of around a 160,000 of them when it pushes out a post. Companies like Gawker, too, rely on gratis Facebook propagation for a huge amount of their audience. Companies on Facebook will have to pay or be pointless.
In other words, it appears that Facebook has again changed the EdgeRank algorithm that determines what each FB users will see in their news feed to further restrict what is known as “organic reach”, i.e., the “normal” distribution of status updates through news feeds based on the users’ own manifestations of their interests. The Valleywag writer went on as follows:
The alternative is of course to pay for more attention. If you want an audience beyond a measly one or two percent, you’ll have to pay money—perhaps a lot of money, if you’re a big business.
The change was described to me by a source as a cataclysm for businesses, something Facebook is calling the extreme throttling a “strategy pivot” they’re slowly telling brands one by one so as not to start a panic. It might be too late. Reports of “crashing” engagement numbers have been floating around for a little while, but this is the first time we’ve heard it drift out of Facebook proper.
As the Valleywag author noted, who really gives a fuck if big business brands have to pay or get their audience reach restricted? But the problem is what this change does to relatively small (and relatively impecunious) Facebook Pages who depend on FB to engage with fans who really want to know what’s going on — and I have in mind the FB pages of broke metal bands, hard-scrabble metal labels, and even money-losing blogs like ours. The Valleywag author put it this way:
[S]maller places and people will see their ability to self-promote basically zeroed out. The fans they’ve attracted will be pushed behind a curtain, only to be pulled back now and then when cash is on hand. If you’ve spent years trying to build up a following for yourself, this is a bummer—maybe a career-altering bummer.
Okay, you and I both know that people can post anything they want on the internet, and much of the time what you read and what is true are two very different things. So how much should we trust the Valleywag report? Well, CNET actually succeeding in following up with Facebook and getting a comment on the report:
“Over the past few months, we have been having conversations with clients about declining organic distribution in News Feed. This is largely due to more competition driven by more sharing,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNET.
The statement addresses a Wednesday report from Valleywag, which cited an anonymous source who claimed that Facebook was cutting organic reach to 1 percent or 2 percent.
“We have not given a specific reach number that Pages should expect to see because organic reach will vary by Page and by post. Like many mediums, if businesses want to make sure that people see their content, the best strategy is, and always has been, paid advertising,” the spokesperson said.
That handwriting on the wall I mentioned? It’s now being inscribed with an even heavier hand. And here are a few other relevant data points from a March 22 story in Time magazine:
Over the past several months, Facebook has been reducing the organic reach of Pages. Even if a person Likes a company or organization on the social network, they’re unlikely to naturally see that Page’s content in their News Feed. In a recent study of more than 100 brand Pages, Ogilvy & Mather found that companies’ posts dropped from reaching 12% of their followers in October to just 6% by February. The tech blog Valleywag reports that Facebook is planning to dial reach down to 1% to 2% of followers eventually.
I see the results of this change every day on the NO CLEAN SINGING Facebook page. I’m filled with a warm glow every time the number of our Facebook likes passes another century mark, but the bloom is off that rose now that I’m seeing how few of our fans actually see our FB posts.
At the time of this writing, we had 7,454 Facebook likes, which is not a bad number as metal blogs go. And yet the number of people who see our daily Facebook posts about content on this blog is usually in the range of only 300-500, or 4-7% of everyone who follows us on Facebook. This is way, way down from even the pitiful 20%-25% who were seeing our posts during one of the previous times I bitched about Facebook’s dollar-driven strategies. How do I know these numbers? Because FB reports them to Page admins like me — they want us to know these pathetic reach numbers so we’ll be “incentivized” to pay for more reach.
Like almost the entirety of the metal community on Facebook, we’re being forcibly railed from behind by FB’s ongoing efforts to extract ad dollars from their ginormous platform — and we’re just innocent bystanders. Most of us don’t have the money to pay FB to ensure that our status updates reach more than 4-7% (or less) of the people who actually seem to care about us. In the case of NCS, we don’t even attempt to make money from our site, so it’s especially tough to justify shelling out dollars just to ensure that our FB followers will see what we’re doing.
I’m even less inclined to shell out money after reading this article:
Facebook is a darling of Wall Street, but it is ruffling some feathers on Madison Avenue. That would seem peculiar since Facebook’s ad business is humming to the tune of $2.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013, a more than 76 percent increase from the same quarter a year before. But according to several ad agency executives, Facebook is still mostly indifferent to their needs to the point of arrogance.
One point of frustration is Facebook’s ongoing squeezing of traffic to organic brand content. A digital agency exec described a recent meeting with Facebook that turned contentious. In what was meant to be a routine meeting, the exec said the Facebook rep told him the brands the agency works with would now have to pay Facebook for the same amount of reach they once enjoyed automatically. That position and Facebook’s perceived attitude have led to some disillusionment on Madison Avenue, where many bought into the dream peddled by Facebook that brands could set up shop on the platform as “publishers” and amass big audiences on their own.
“We’ve lowered our expectations from Facebook in regards to collaboration and partnership,” said Jeffrey Melton, chief distribution officer at digital agency MRY. “At this point, we’re so used to it. Facebook is kind of like your C student who is not failing, but they’re definitely not your A student looking to be the class leader.”
Maybe I should have titled this article “Facebook Is A C Student” instead of calling them an extortionist. I mean, they’re not putting a gun to anyone’s head to extract more money. We can always just suck it up or leave. And I’m sure someone out there will tell me (as someone always does), “it’s their business, you’re getting their service for free, so stop your whining you little bitch”. But I think I and every other Facebook user is entitled to complain. Facebook makes billions of dollars because of their hundreds of millions of users, and the amount of content they provide is infinitesimally small compared to the content their users generate on the platform. There ought to be a social contract between us and them, but as the lawyers would say, it’s a contract of adhesion.
Is there any answer, short of paying FB to let your status updates reach your followers? As far as I can tell, the best strategy is the same one I recommended the last time I vented about FB’s business strategies:
If you run a Facebook Page, encourage your readers to like, share, and comment on your posts.
If you are a Facebook user and want to increase the chances of seeing the FB Pages you care about, like, share, and comment on the status updates posted by those Pages.
There really isn’t any other shortcut or magic bullet. Even this strategy is of dwindling utility, given the further changes that are the subject of this article, but it’s better than rolling over and playing dead. And at least for now, Facebook’s news-feed algorithm still seems to put significant weight on this kind of “engagement” in deciding which Page posts will be seen by which users.
In general, here’s how I feel about this depressing news, with thanks to Minnesota’s Nuklear Frost for summing it up for me:
(P.S. I put a link to this article on our Facebook page and paid Facebook to “promote” the link so it would be seen by more than 4-7% of our FB fans.)