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Facebook Algorithm Tweaks Hurt Viral Sites More Than Other Publishers

Organic reach suffering for Viral Nova, others

Photo Illustration: Rachel Cutler

Publishers are claiming that content they share on Facebook pages isn't reaching as many readers as it used to.

Adweek reached out to comScore to find out how referral traffic through Facebook has changed from Nov. 2013 to Feb. 2014 for several top properties. For reference, we also tracked the change in the sites’ unique visitors over the same time period. (The data points below for Viral Nova and Distractify were not available for those dates, so we used information from the earliest time period with accurate data.)

  Change in Facebook referrals between Nov. 2013 to Feb. 2014 Change in total unique visitors between Nov. 2013 to Feb. 2014
Upworthy - 50 percent - 51 percent
Elite Daily - 48 percent - 39 percent
Viral Nova - 62 percent (from Jan. 2014 to Feb. 2014) - 62 percent (from Jan. 2014 to Feb. 2014)
Distractify - 84 percent (from Dec. 2013 to Feb. 2014) - 77 percent (from Dec. 2013 to Feb. 2014)
BuzzFeed + 20 percent  + 12 percent
Business Insider + 16 percent + 12 percent
The New York Times - 16 percent  - 8 percent
The Guardian + 11 percent + 2 percent

“The reported tweaks to Facebook's Newsfeed algorithm, formerly called EdgeRank, are just the latest in a progression of changes that have slowly diminished the organic reach of brand pages over the past couple of years,” Joseph Tam, senior director of digital for media agency MEC, said via email. “Facebook has been very vocal in expressing that such changes are in the name of protecting the user experience and responding to user sentiment. You have to believe that efforts to 'clean up' the Newsfeed are essential to user retention and in the best long-term interest of the company, but it remains to be seen what the impact and reaction will be from marketers.”

Tam noted that Facebook's confidence that it can remain one of the top players in the social media sphere in spite of these changes stems from its gargantuan 1.2 billion user base.

It's becoming apparent that there's a still a misconception in some circles around the idea that Facebook is an agnostic platform—akin to a public plaza—that doesn't systematically curate the user experience. Indeed, it's become safe to say that the Menlo Park, Calif.-based digital giant is tweaking its algorithm to highlight content in a fashion that's not unlike a newspaper or magazine's online presence. Sites that rely on viral material seem to be getting hurt more—but it's interesting to note that Buzzfeed doesn't seem to be as affected, perhaps because of the extreme shareability and proliferation of its quizzes and listicles.

An Upworthy spokesperson told Adweek that it was aware of the decline in traffic from November 2013 to February 2014, but pointed out that over the course of a year its unique views had grown overall. She chalked up the slowdown during that period to four pieces of extremely viral content leading to an extreme spike in November, but did not want to speculate why other similar sites experienced a correlative decline during the same time period. 

And for digital-historical context, just as Google has reworked its search algorithm over the years to the chagrin of SEO marketers, Facebook's maneuvers are now making publishers rethink their Newsfeed strategies. Whether more ad spend is the result of this thought process remains to be seen.

Facebook confirmed to Adweek that there were changes made in how things were ranked in Newsfeeds. It said the the tweaks were made to customize the experience for the Facebook user. 

"There’s a natural variability in the popularity of content on Facebook depending on what people are sharing—especially for posts that go viral very rapidly. Fluctuation can happen independently of updates that we make to our ranking algorithms," a Facebook spokesperson told Adweek. 

It also told CNET that the reason why organic reach was slowing down was because more people were sharing content through pages. Added material is reaching users, diluting the rate of referral clicks.

But, an anonymous source “professionally familiar with Facebook’s marketing strategy” claimed the contrary in comments to Valleywag, saying the social media mammoth made the modifications in order to get organizations to spend advertising dollars. Instead of using free brand pages, publishers would be forced to buy Facebook ads to tap into referral traffic.

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