Here’s How Facebook’s Algorithm Shift Is Hurting Digital Publishers, and the Steps They Can Take to Survive

Digital publishers will be shutting down, beginning with startups like LittleThings

Facebook's algorithm change has affected startups the most. Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of A.J. Katz

Facebook is in retreat mode these days as it continues to battle fake news. The social media juggernaut has decided to move away from digital publishers as a way of distancing itself from the internal problems it has been having for years.

Facebook made a bold move by making a significant algorithm change to its newsfeed last month. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the change means Facebook’s two billion or so users will see more posts from friends and family and “less public content like posts from businesses, brands and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard.”

The change is hurting a number of digital publishers, particularly startups that have come to rely almost exclusively on organic traffic from Facebook for their economic survival.

Chartbeat has noticed a 15 percent decline in referral traffic to Facebook in 2017 and a 6 percent decline since January 2018, when the algorithm shift was announced. Granted, January is traditionally an uneven month for traffic, and Facebook had noted that their algorithm change is something that’s going to take a few months to be fully in effect.

But numbers are still numbers, and the trend doesn’t look great.

One casualty as a result of the algorithm shift was the digital video producer LittleThings, a 4-year-old site that produced live and taped content, upbeat stories and videos primarily targeting a female audience.

The publisher had built up over 12 million followers and was very close to securing an investment that would have allowed it to grow beyond its 100-person staff.

On Tuesday night, LittleThings announced that it’s shutting down.

Market Intelligence looked at 300 different English language publications back in 2016, before the algorithm change, to find out which ones received the highest percent of referral traffic from Facebook in Q1 2016 and found that a whopping 98 percent of LittleThings’s social traffic came via Facebook referral.

No other English language publication out of the 300 tested were more dependent on Facebook for traffic than LittleThings, and with that in mind, it’s obvious that Facebook’s algorithm change was making life significantly more difficult for LittleThings in its pursuit to reach consumers.

So the dream has been dashed, and one industry expert who is friendly with the higher-ups at LittleThings says the digital publishers that will continue to succeed are the ones that are buying traffic. Those that rely on Facebook for organic traffic and skew younger, including the smaller startups, are more vulnerable.

“Facebook is calling this the ‘friends and family update.’ But the update, in my opinion, has nothing to do with friends and family,” said John Lemp, CEO of Revcontent, a native advertising network that counts The Atlantic, Newsweek and Fast Company among its partners.

Lemp feels Facebook’s shift is hurting digital publishers more than it’s helping users see more content from family and friends.

“Facebook pushed out the ability for publishers to reach a lot of people organically; a lot of them are losing 80–90 percent of their organic traffic,” continued Lemp. “You’re now seeing more paid content, and if you want to communicate with the people that you’re supposed to have a connection with, you have to pay Facebook for that communication.”

Adweek reached out to a number of high-profile digital publishers to find out to what extent their traffic has been negatively affected by the Facebook algorithm shift. Many of them did not respond to our request, and Mic declined to comment.

For some publishers, the algorithm change means they’ll have to reevaluate the ways in which they engage with audiences instead of having to rely on social platforms.

“It will be a challenge but also an opportunity to re-engage with what they do best: earning audiences for compelling editorial content,” said Suggestv CEO James Pringle. “Moving video investment and strategy from in-feed to on-site is the best place to start—publishers can grow valuable high margin inventory, monetize new and archived content, and most importantly, the engagement with this will support the publishers’ owned and operated spaces, not Facebook’s.”

Some publishers will undoubtedly succeed in this pursuit, but many will not.

“It breaks my heart to see this happening to publishers and, unfortunately, Little Things won’t be the last—there are more to come,” said Lemp.

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.