In a move that’s very reminiscent of Google five or so years ago, Facebook has in the past few days made a big change to its News Feed algorithm which it says will “reduce the influence of…spammers” who routinely spread low-quality content. As a result, users who share 50-plus links publicly a day will be penalised, and have their content demoted automatically.
Since last year, Facebook has been on a crackdown against the spread of misinformation and spam content across its network. This followed claims that it was helping to propagate the spread of fake news during the 2016 US presidential election. For example, according to Buzzfeed, teens from a small town in Macedonia set up at least 100 US politics websites where aggressively pro-Trump content was published. To quote from the article directly, “As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles [Macedonia]”. So these youths found if they published sensationalist (and often false) content, it would generate traffic and shares on Facebook, which in turn would lead to click-throughs to their website, driving a sizeable return in ad revenue.
Consequently, as Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president for the News Feed, shares in a blog post, “we want to reduce the influence of these spammers and deprioritize the links they share more frequently than regular sharers.”
What impact will this have for legitimate businesses and publishers?
Crucially, business pages remain free to post as much as they want as this change only scrutinises individual user accounts. Facebook has offered the assurance that most publishers won’t see any significant changes to their distribution in News Feed. However it warns that “publishers that get meaningful distribution from people who routinely share vast amounts of public posts per day may see a reduction in the distribution of those specific links”. Additionally, any reputable individuals who tend to share 50-plus times per day will also be captured by the algorithm change, meaning they will no longer get the reach they used to.
On the surface, this seems like quite a crude way of differentiating spam from quality content. To some extent Facebook must agree, and Mosseri says “of course, this is only one signal among many others that may affect the ranking prioritization of this type of post. This update will only apply to links, such as an individual article, not to domains, Pages, videos, photos, check-ins or status updates.”
Facebook says it won’t be manually looking at the content being distributed by these super-shares, as apparently, the correlation between these types of users and spammy content is so strong that it doesn’t see the need to. But of course this leaves plenty of room for error, with the absence of any human moderation in place.
Should businesses be worried about the change?
In brief…quite possibly! Importantly, the update is a reminder of the power Facebook holds within the social media space, with the ability to drastically alter its content distribution rules overnight (à la Google!). Although the repercussions of this particular update will most likely be minimal for legitimate publishers, and the potential for more drastic changes in the future is worrying. If the same 50-plus rule is applied to business Pages, for example, the impact could be catastrophic for businesses, as it was when Google unleashed its Panda update several years ago.
Facebook advises businesses should “continue to post stories that are relevant to their audiences and that their readers find informative”, which is always good and sensible advise. But this isn’t a change that businesses should overlook, as there are bigger issues to consider. They would be wise not to focus their efforts too heavily on Facebook alone, and instead invest time in understanding where their audience and potential audience reside online, and place increased importance on other channels and networks if they aren’t doing so already. In the world of social media, it can be extremely risky for a business to place all of their eggs in one basket so to speak, and instead it makes sense to take a much broader, longer-term view.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen what impact Facebook’s algorithm change will have upon spammers. If these untrustworthy publishers are smart, they will work around these algorithm changes quite easily, and alter their behaviour so that they’re maybe sharing 48 posts per day instead. They may adopt techniques which aren’t so straightforward for Facebook to differentiate from legitimate activity.
There has also been some industry speculation around why Facebook isn’t simply banning these spam accounts. A tweet from TechCrunch’s Josh Constine stated that Facebook feels that “it can’t suspend spammers just for oversharing”, which is a controversial stance to be taking. If these individuals are making money through the spread of fake news, for example, then do they really deserve their right to Facebook freedom? One could argue that Facebook isn’t going far enough to protect the legitimacy of its New Feed content.
Overall, businesses should be mindful of the fact that Facebook could at any point bring in algorithm changes which could be far more wide-reaching in their impact. Not only should businesses be keeping themselves up-to-date on these changes, but they also be cautious about not spreading their content too thin across any one social network