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Time For Publishers On Facebook To Panic?

An algorithmic change is set to strangle reach

30Jun

In what will come as a piece of terrible news for digital publishers, Facebook has updated its algorithm to favor user-generated content over content created by brands and businesses. Announced at the end of June, the tweak will, without doubt, mean a dip in traffic for almost all publishers relying on Facebook for a significant chunk of theirs readership.

The social media giant has become such a powerful force in the global distribution of news and other content that any change to its algorithm can cause panic among the digital publishing industry, a reality the social media giant addressed in a press release. Facebook warned that: ‘This update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages,’ and the reaction among publishers has largely been one of dismay. Given the efforts Facebook has gone to in encouraging brands to rely on it for traffic, the move does seem a bit of a cruel twist.

Facebook has been in the news of late for the apparent signs of anti-conservative bias, controversially evident in the Trending Topics widget on the site - the site was accused of omitting certain news stories. ‘We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about,’ Facebook’s vice president of product management, Adam Mosseri, said. ‘We are in the business of connecting people and ideas — and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful.’ As The Verge’s Casey Newton highlights in his relatively pointed piece on the matter, though, the two become almost indistinguishable under scrutiny - ‘how do you connect a person with an idea without first picking the idea?’

Facebook is in the midst of something of an image crisis. As The Verge’s piece points out, a measure of success for Facebook is not how well informed their readers are, rather how much time they spend on the news feed. Retention is the goal, not impartial information. In this sense, Facebook differs wildly from Twitter given the latter’s sheer chronological presentation of its content - as soon as curation occurs, as on Facebook, some level of discrimination is all but inevitable.

Any Twitter user will know that it wins the battle of the news aggregators and ‘informative’ spaces. What for Facebook, then? Its focus on video has, in many ways, distanced it from its 140-character competition, and it’s likely that the algorithmic change will specifically favor video content from friends and family. The site has been aggressively pushing Facebook Live recently, particularly when it’s a friend streaming. Mark Zuckerberg’s giant has come a long way from users sharing text updates and profile pictures but, if Facebook is pushing video content over all else, the quieting of brands - for whom video is a powerful tool - seems odd.

The move comes for two reasons, though. One is purely financial - businesses are simply more likely to pay for promoted content if their organic reach takes a hit. As Recode note, ‘Mosseri said Facebook won’t actively push publishers to sponsor their posts in lieu of the change, but it won’t have to.’ Facebook’s new mantra that ‘Friends and Family Come First’ rests on the notion that brands come second, and they’ll have to pay if they want their voices heard. The second reason is one of desperation - ‘original sharing’ on the site has been in decline and the hope is clearly that by prioritizing user content, those users will be more inclined to share it.

The reaction to the news has been as varied as it has been strong. Some value the social media giant’s transparency, while others see the reduction of editorial content as the site neglecting its responsibility to inform its readers of world events - whether you agree it has one or not. For the user, the change may not even be noticeable. For publishers, though, the job of building engagement and generating leads on social media just became that little bit more difficult. 

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