Inside Facebook, NFO (News Feed Optimization) is the new SEO

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Everybody with a website knows that Google owns two of their most important marketing channels: organic search (SEO) and paid search (SEM). In fact, entire cottage industries have developed around them:

  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – gaming Google (and the other search engines) into thinking you’re authoritative on a given topic and deserve to be listed highly in its search results.
  • SEM (Search Engine Marketing) – paying Google (and the others) to put you next to sites that it thinks are authoritative on a given topic.

Inside Facebook, however, Google is irrelevant. Instead, Facebook owns your most important marketing channels: the News Feed, Notifications, and Messages. And marketers and application developers have analagous marketing options with Facebook as with Google on the open web:

  1. NFO (News Feed Optimization) – convincing Facebook to display the Feed items that your application publishes in your users’ friends’ News Feeds.
  2. NFM (News Feed Marketing) - paying Facebook to insert your ad next to Feed items that it thinks are important enough to be shown.

News Feed Marketing is fairly easy for marketers to understand: give Facebook your credit card number, and they’ll stick you in the News Feeds and guarantee a certain quantity of targeted traffic to your Facebook application or sponsored group.

News Feed Optimization, on the other hand, is a bit trickier:

  • Like Google’s PageRank algorithms, Facebook’s proprietary “FeedRank” (my term) algorithms determine which Feed items are shown to whom and which items are not.
  • Like Google’s undisclosed PageRank algorithm, the variables that contribute to your Feed item’s FeedRank are unknown to you (and everyone except Facebook).
  • Like companies dependent on their SEO’d Google PageRank, companies dependent on their NFO’d Facebook FeedRank will experience similar trauma when the algorithm unpredictably or inexplicably changes.

Welcome to the new world of NFO–the new SEO for Facebook marketers. Optimizing your product’s News Feed items is the single most important thing you can do as a marketer on Facebook. Not only should Feed items be designed for optimal conversion, but they should also be invoked by your application in ways that will maximize their distribution.

Designing High Performance News Feed Items

1. The most important thing you can do as a Facebook application marketer is to publish engaging, authentic Feed items. Whenever a user performs an action within your application, consider whether hearing about that action would be valuable to that user’s friends. If so, publish a Feed item about that event.

For example, the Moods application invokes a Feed item when a user changes their mood. The feed item simply contains this contextually appropriate “news” about my friend Holly–she has updated her mood within the Moods application (I’m glad to hear she’s feeling happy).

Likewise, the Books application publishes a Feed item when a user indicates that they have started or finished reading a book. This is also news that I find appropriate and interesting about my friend–I might even casually follow up with Jonathan about this “news”.

2. Be sure you optimize your Feed items for all of the Feed item elements made available to you by Facebook: title, body, and images. The Facebook Developers Feed Item documentation describes the requirements and limitations of each Feed item element as the following:

  • The title is required, and is limited to 60 displayed characters(excluding tags).
    • The a tag is allowed, and there can be zero or one instance in the title.
    • One fb:userlink tag is allowed, and the uid parameter must be populated with the user id on whose behalf the action is being published. If there is no such fb:userlink tag found, then one is automatically prepended to the title.
    • The fb:name tag is allowed, and there may be multiple instances of this tag.
    • No other tags are allowed.
  • The body is optional, is limited to 200 displayed characters (excluding tags), and can include the tags fb:userlink, fb:name, a, b, and i.
  • Up to 4 images can be displayed, which will be shrunk to fit within 75×75, cached, and formatted by Facebook. Images can either be a URL, or a facebook PID. If it is a URL, you must own the image and grant Facebook the permission to cache it. Each image must have a link associated with it, which must start with http://

As you notice above, both Moods and Feeds use short titles to get your attention and longer, more descriptive bodies. Moods also includes an image, which is very attention grabbing.

Be careful, however, to resist the temptation to always max out the images you include with every feed item just because they’re “essentially free ad space”. This could make your Feed items seem spammy and adversely affect your Feed item conversion rate.

3. Include inviting, provocative calls to action that lead the reader to install the application directly.

Ultimately, the value of the News Feed the application developer is that it’s powerful, free marketing. The News Feed can be used to convert your users’ friends to do things you want them to do – like install your application. You need to make this conversion process as quick and easy as possible.

For example, you’ll notice that the Moods application asks the reader, “How are you feeling?” immediately after the Feed item body. Clicking this link leads to the Moods application installation page. As a result, the Moods application has experienced significant growth despite not doing any active marketing.

The Books application prompts the reader to click on the title of the book my friend just finished reading. However, clicking this link does not lead me to install the application, but rather through an affiliate link to Amazon, where the Books developer will earn a commission on anything I purchase.

Achieving Optimal News Feed Distribution

In addition to designing Feed items for optimal conversion, your application should also invoke Feed items in ways that will maximize their distribution. Like Google’s PageRank algorithm, Facebook’s FeedRank algorithm is and will remain unpublished by Facebook in order to fight the war on Feed spam. This, however, presents obvious challenges to application marketers.

I spoke with Facebook Senior Software Engineer Justin Rosenstein about News Feeds and the selection algorithms last week. While he wouldn’t divulge the algorithm :) , he did offer the following facts about News Feed:

  • News Feed publishes just a little more than 0.2% of the stories it considers. This means that out of every 1,000 feed items that are selectable for publication, only 2 become News Feed items that friends see.
  • The Facebook weighting algorithms apply some general principles, but they primarily rely on behavior specific to each user. This means that while your Feed item may score highly on many factors, Facebook will hide your Feed items for some users it thinks wouldn’t find your item interesting. Facebook considers nearly every available source of data it has on each user to help calibrate their weights and deliver the best stories.
  • Facebook is constantly improving their algorithm as new data becomes available. This means your experience will change with time. What is true today may not be true tomorrow.
  • Users can also help direct News Feed outside its normal bounds with their News Feed Preferences. Remember, Facebook lets users weight Feed items from certain friends more or less interesting–though it doesn’t have a general “Application” weight preference slider.

The Facebook Developer documentation on Feed item publishing parameters and limits has been changing almost every week since the Platform launched in late May, and as such the FeedRank algorithms are still very much a work in progress. For example, recently, Facebook had explained its algorithm in terms of a points system in which application developers get 5 points per user per day to spend on Feed items, where points spent on a given Feed item boost its FeedRank.

Now, however, Facebook places the following limits on Feed items:

  • facebook.feed.publishStoryToUser – Publishes a News Feed story to the user. Applications are limited to calling this function once every 12 hours for each user. The story may or may not show up in the user’s News Feed, depending on the number and quality of competing stories.
  • facebook.feed.publishActionOfUser – Publishes a Mini-Feed story to the user, and publishes News Feed stories to the friends of that user. Applications are limited to calling this function ten (10) times for each user in a rolling 48-hour window. The story may or may not show up in the user’s friends’ News Feeds, depending on the number and quality of competing stories.

Ultimately, gaming the News Feed is going to be harder than gaming Google’s PageRank algorithm because of the personalized nature of Feed item selection. Because so many components of FeedRank depend on individual user behavior, there is only so much you can do as an application developer to boost your Feed item’s score across the board aside from designing rich, engaging Feed items that convert well.

That being said, it’s probably only a matter of time before the same type of people who created PayPerPost set up a new type of shop to game Facebook: in a world where individual behavior matters most, I’m sure you will soon be able to buy not only application distribution, but also News Feed clicks, hoping that Facebook will believe that your feed items really are that interesting.

[tags]facebook,news feed optimization,news feed marketing, nfo, nfm[/tags]