News Feed, EdgeRank and page posts: what’s really going on with Facebook?

Many marketers and page owners have been decrying Facebook’s News Feed algorithm that controls who sees their posts.

There have been claims that the company is manipulating the algorithm — sometimes referred to as EdgeRank — to limit the reach of page posts and force admins to buy ads to get their content seen. Some have called for Facebook to eliminate its algorithms, giving users the chance to see everything in the feed and then hide what they don’t want.

We looked to the Inside Facebook archives and spoke to News Feed product manager Will Cathcart to understand what was actually going on.

The fact is pages have almost never reached their full audience — except for a short test in 2009. Now that there is more activity on Facebook and thus more competition for News Feed distribution, the company has introduced a way for page owners to pay to get their most important posts seen by more fans and friends of fans. At the same time, Facebook is continuing to improve its algorithms to show users the posts they are most likely to engage with and not show the ones they aren’t. This means some posts aren’t going as far as they might have in the past.

Here are answers to some commonly asked questions based on what we’ve learned from research, interviews and personal experience managing pages.

How does News Feed work?

News Feed is personalized for each user, and there are two key factors for Facebook to consider: what to show and in what order. An algorithm sifts through tens of thousands of potential stories and tries to surface the ones that a user is most likely to engage with. Some of those cues come from how a user has reacted to similar posts from the past — did they click, Like, share or hide? The algorithm also considers how other users have reacted to the post — are a user’s friends or a page’s fans clicking, Liking, sharing or hiding?

Then there are more explicit actions users can take to influence the content of their feed, for instance, adding users to a close friends list, indicating that they only want to see “important updates” from certain people, blocking applications, hiding pages or creating interest lists. Facebook will use this information to show more or less of a particular type of content.

The “Top Stories” view puts posts in the order Facebook thinks will be most interesting. The “Most Recent” filter includes all the same content as “Top Stories” but in order from newest to oldest.

How does Facebook decide whether to show my page posts to fans?

When a page makes a post, Facebook’s ranking algorithm begins to show the post to fans who are most likely to engage with it. These may be users who have recently Liked the page, clicked on previous posts, visited the page directly or have otherwise expressed affinity for the page’s content.

If the post does well among its initial audience, it is more likely to be shown to another set of fans. If the post isn’t generating many clicks, and especially if any users mark it as spam, Facebook is unlikely to distribute the post much further.

Why are my posts getting less reach than before?

Pages have never been able to reach their full audience, except for a short period in 2009, but lately many page owners have noticed changes in the amount of organic reach their posts have been getting.

It’s important to point out that the competition for any given story to be featured in News Feed is higher than ever. Users are connected to more people, pages, groups and apps, all of which are generating more posts and activity than before. Since September 2011, Facebook has opened up the feed to a new class of third-party apps, posts from users you subscribe to, interest lists, offers, Sponsored Stories and more.