Facebook Tweaks Cause Concern Among Marketers, but Not Necessarily Panic

News feed algorithm changes have publishers on their toes

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Facebook today unveiled changes to the way its news feed algorithm distributes page posts, giving more credence to posts by users' friends than from publishers. For instance, news articles with many likes and comments have typically appeared high up in users' news feeds, but that is being reduced to a degree in favor of non-business content. 

While the ramifications are unclear, it has publishers everywhere wondering if one of their key traffic drivers may soon send fewer users to their sites.

"It feels like they are trying to brace publishers for a decline," said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next (formerly Online Publishers Association), which includes 65 notable members like Conde Nast, The New York Times, ESPN and USA Today. "But like with any of these announcements, it's kind of a black box, so we don't really know. We'll watch it play out over time."

John Donahue is co-founder of White Lightning + Judge's Son, which helps various publishers maximize their buzzier stories with paid media and other tactics. Donahue said Facebook reach stats and link clickthroughs on the platform were down for some of his clients almost immediately after the changes went into effect today. Though, like Kint, he cautioned against over-reacting to the tweaks.

"The most irresponsible response is to freak out and assume the worst," Donahue said. "The prudent response is to ensure we wait a week or two to allow user acceptance and adoption of the new news feed [information architecture], and then ascertain whether or not the content we are programming is compelling enough in its new downstream position to drive the reach and traffic we have come accustomed to. If I were a betting man, I would say that this will cause publishers to focus on less content that is higher quality." 

Indeed, Facebook's moves could prove to be less negative for publishers with pages that have the most attractive information. Though, the development raises a question: If publishers' traffic dwindles materially, will they buy more Facebook ads to maintain their readership numbers?

"They'll generally go try something else," Kint predicted. "Facebook wants to be a place for news and high-quality content. And the business models have to make sense. The traffic has to be there, or publishers will go to Twitter, Snapchat or whatever the next distribute point is."

Publishers will be affected differently, case by case, as a result of today's algorithm changes. For example, a content maker whose Facebook fans happen to "like" fewer publishers' pages compared to the average user could see greater traffic. Such users will now see more posts from the same publisher.

"Previously, we had rules in place to prevent you from seeing multiple posts from the same source in a row," said a Facebook post co-authored by product manager Max Eulenstein and user experience researcher Lauren Scissors. "With this update, we are relaxing this rule. Now if you run out of content but want to spend more time in news feed, you'll see more."

Brian Selander, evp of Whistle Sports, which teams up with millennial YouTube and Vine stars for sports-related entertainment videos, said, "Some creators might get hit a small bit while others could see a bounce. We track each page and creator and will be adjusting as we see some impact."

Everything stated by the Menlo Park, Calif.-based tech giant suggests the goal of the changes was to improve user experience rather than increasing ad sales. Aaron Cuker, CEO of the Cuker Agency, is taking the social media behemoth at its word.

"Facebook's advertising program is working really well," he said. "With more attention being put on ads, they don't want users to start missing out on important posts from friends and family."

At the same time, if major publishers see traffic dips—which Donahue indicated is quite possible—it might make them consider ramping up on paid Facebook promos.

But Brian Fitzgerald, president of Evolve Media, probably won't be one of them. He said his properties Crave Online and Totally Her get 35 percent of their traffic from people directly typing in the URL, and it doesn't sound as if he's about to start paying for more eyeballs.

"We never invested in a YouTube channel strategy, nor have we paid for likes or bought social traffic," said Fitzgerald. "You cannot build a good publishing business where you are too heavily reliant on third parties [like Facebook] for audience or revenue. …We rely on our readers to share and push our content out to their friends. That model isn't broken."   

Lastly, it's not the first time Facebook has altered how content is distributed via its news feed. During 2014, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to try to reduce "clickbait" headlines and made other changes that negatively affected viral sites like Distractify and Elite Daily.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.