What Facebook’s Latest Algorithm Actually Means for Publishers

09/30/2016 03:07 pm ET

Last year, Facebook finally pulled ahead of Google as the top source of referral traffic for digital publishers, something publishers suspected may happen with time given shifts in where readers consume their news and the roll-out of Facebook’s Instant Articles.

Perhaps this eventual “win” was, in part, due to the fact that Facebook has long held its user experience above all else. With this brand pillar in mind, it wasn’t a huge surprise when the social media platform announced another change to its News Feed algorithm that places emphasis on content shared by friends and family.

In an announcement published by Facebook’s Adam Mosseri, VP of Product Management for News Feed, Mosseri says the change is ultimately meant to leave users more satisfied:

“When we launched News Feed in 2006, it was hard to imagine the challenge we now face: far too much information for any one person to consume. In the decade since, more than a billion people have joined Facebook, and today they share a flood of stories every day. That’s why stories in News Feed are ranked – so that people can see what they care about first, and don’t miss important stuff from their friends.”

A byproduct of placing friends and family first is that content shared by digital publishers will likely appear lower in News Feeds, requiring users to scroll down to find it. This could impact the high amounts of referral traffic publishers have been receiving from Facebook over the past year. It’s not that different from what’s been going on with SEO and Google; An algorithm change can greatly affect traffic, potentially leaving publishers struggling to make up the loss, the keyword being “potentially.”

It’s likely that Facebook algorithms will follow the long-term arc of Google’s SEO algorithms, making it more difficult for digital publishers to get visibility. But just like with search engines, staying acutely focused on creating quality content that resonates with a specific audience is a best practice that will continue to generate success regardless of platform-specific changes.

Being reactive to Facebook’s algorithm changes isn’t a cure-all solution

Brands and the media have a history of asking “How high?” every time Facebook or Google say they should jump. Our customers, digital publishers, come to us nervously asking what they should do to safeguard their traffic any time Facebook announces a change.

For example, when Facebook Live launched, many digital publishers and brands assembled mini video teams and started posting Facebook Live content right away instead of waiting to see how Facebook users interacted with the new format. Some of these brands and media sites saw great engagement numbers, reaping a benefit for moving quickly. Insider, Business Insider’s general news site, was one of them. In this case, it was helpful to react quickly.

But it doesn’t mean that digital publishers and brands must knee-jerk react to every change Facebook implements. So far, the data hasn’t shown any big deviations in referral traffic from Facebook since the new algorithm was put into place.

Keep an eye out for long-term trends instead of short-term wins

Instead of shifting strategy based on suspicion, focus on monitoring changes in traffic, should they occur, and watch for long-term arcs. You can monitor this trend in real-time with the help of the Facebook referral volume dashboard my team created using aggregate data from Parse.ly’s network of more than 600 digital publishers.

Remember that Facebook algorithm changes are always going to ladder back to the social network’s stated goals of catering to the user, not aligning with what’s best for the media. Some of these changes will be good for digital publishers and others will be bad depending on how those changes affect Facebook’s readership.

So if you’re inclined to pursue short-term wins on Facebook, I suggest that you shelf those ideas, and remain focused on producing quality content and better understanding your audience. Until we know how News Feed will behave consistently, don’t “jump” just because Facebook hints that you should.

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