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You Won’t Believe What Facebook Did to Social Publishers

There’s a good chance that what you’re seeing in your Facebook News Feed is changing. In fact, it already has.

And if you’re a social publisher, the news is bad.

Facebook recently tweaked its algorithms to encourage sharing of “quality” content. What does that mean? Well, it simply means that Facebook is showing you less viral content — well, less of a certain kind of viral content, that is.

In the past Facebook has put a disproportionate amount of promotional emphasis on “virality.” Facebook rewarded content that was already popular by putting it in front of more eyeballs, making it even more popular. Kind of an unfair system, to say the least. But it worked so well that it was able to support a rapidly-rising ruthless industry of “social publishers” (or viral publishers) which thrived on gaming that system.

Even if you logged into Facebook only once in 2013, I’m willing to bet you saw some of these viral posts. Buzzfeed, Upworthy, ViralNova, Distractify, and Elite Daily were among the top traffic producers. Their posts were usually a series of images, videos, or animated gifs with accompanying headlines written in a breathless, tween-style tone designed to pique your curiosity enough to click — and each one seemed more ludicrously inane than the last:

8-Year-Old Boy Does Something Really Amazing For His Teacher
A Deer “Robs” A Gas Station — But What This Cop Does Next Will Shock You
WOW, You Won’t Believe What This Woman Did To Her Cheating Boyfriend
17 Photos Of Cats Riding Unicorns That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
10 Signs You’re A Breakfast Cereal Psychic

Those headlines were all made up, but trust me: you’d be hard-pressed to pick them out from the real ones.

What happened then?

So, Facebook switched the emphasis from viral content to quality content. After the algorithm changes were made, comScore reported that traffic to many of the social publishers had decreased considerably. For example, between December 2013 and January 2014 Upworthy’s traffic dropped about 50% — after having just spiked from 6 million unique visits in August to 14 million in November.1

Interestingly, Buzzfeed’s traffic after the algorithm changes only increased, fueling a flurry of speculation that Buzzfeed buys traffic from Facebook and that ad partners garner special treatment (Facebook maintained that ads have no impact on Organic News Feed rankings).2 In defense, analysts pointed out that Buzzfeed’s core staff of respected journalists could have yielded it a higher “quality” rating than the other social publishers, at least in view of Facebook’s ranking wizardry, or that maybe the average Facebook user is simply tired of being baited and isn’t clicking and sharing viral posts anymore.

What really happened? We can never truly know the secrets of Facebook’s algorithms and inner workings, of course, and Facebook can’t be wholly blamed for the dip in traffic for social publishers. It’s safe to say, however, that the algorithm change did have a discernible effect on the News Feeds of Facebook users.

The quality of change

Is change a good thing? In this instance, yes, I think so. I’ve certainly noticed a positive difference in what I see when I log into Facebook these days. The number of viral posts from social publishers has dwindled dramatically, and — at least in my feed — “like farming” posts have nearly disappeared.

The future of online publishing is still being written, but what the “death” of the social publisher on Facebook has shown us is that Facebook plays a large hand in its successes and failures — at least for now. Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants Facebook to be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” Quality and value, however, are ultimately subjective, and only time will tell if users want those decisions made for them by a computer algorithm.

Have you seen a difference in what you see on Facebook these days? Do you think it’s for the better or for the worse?

1 Source: http://digiday.com/publishers/facebook-cutting-social-publishers/

2 Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-changed-how-the-news-feed-works–and-huge-website-upworthy-suddenly-shrank-in-half-2014-2

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