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.

Users are updating Facebook more often from their phones. Many pages have increased the number of posts they make each day. Images have gotten bigger and the share button has become more prominent, so users are reposting items from friends and other accounts more frequently. Open Graph integration means that activity from Pinterest, Tumblr, Spotify, The Huffington Post and thousands of other apps is also eligible for the feed. It’s no surprise that page posts are struggling to get views.

On top of this, Facebook is constantly making tweaks to its algorithms and UI that affect pages’ reach and engagement. This can be frustrating because it makes it difficult for page owners to understand their performance over time. Is a low-performing post this week worse than one last week or was there simply a change on Facebook’s end?

For instance, in September, Facebook made a design change that made it easier for users to mark posts as spam and hide page content. Because Facebook now has a better gauge on what users don’t like, it is able to take this negative feedback into consideration and avoid showing content to other users who are likely to also consider it spam. Posts with less positive interactions are going to get less reach, but on the flipside, posts that are engaging will get more reach more quickly, which explains why reach is no longer as consistent across posts. Facebook tells us there is likely to be even more variance in the future, as it works to get the best possible posts in front of users.

Is Facebook purposely limiting reach on page posts so that we have to buy ads?

Facebook denies claims that it is “gaming” News Feed and putting a cap on organic reach in order to encourage page owners to buy more ads. It has said this in a recent blog post and to Inside Facebook directly when we asked.

Some marketers still see the timing of News Feed changes and the roll out of Promoted Posts as suspect. Although it’s impossible to verify the company’s intent here, the more likely scenario is that News Feed competition is naturally increasing — as explained above — and many page owners are only now realizing that they aren’t reaching as many fans as they thought they were.

Reach is a relatively new metric. October 2011 was the first time page owners could look at the unique number of people they reached over a period of time. Before then, Facebook returned daily page and per-post impressions, but it didn’t offer a de-duplicated weekly reach total and numbers on how frequently a page reached an audience, as it does now. And it wasn’t until May of this year that Facebook began displaying reach metrics on Timeline. Previously, page owners would have had to go to their insights tab to view this data, now it’s readily available on every post they make.

The increased visibility, combined with announcement of Promoted Posts, have made page owners hyper-aware of the effect News Feed algorithms can have on the distribution of their marketing efforts. Even though Facebook has tried to say, “Your posts aren’t going as far as you’d like, so here’s a solution,” marketers are hearing, “We have ads to sell you, so your posts aren’t going to go as far anymore.” Rants and rumors have dominated the discourse, and Facebook is going to have to be more thoughtful and transparent if it is going to gain trust from page owners and avoid the misconceptions that are rampant right now.

Why doesn’t Facebook just get rid of EdgeRank and show people all posts?

Some people have called for Facebook to eliminate its ranking algorithm and allow users to see all posts from their friends and pages they’ve chosen to connect with. The reality is this would create a worse experience for most Facebook users and wouldn’t necessarily lead to more views and engagement on page posts.

Facebook tried a real-time, non-algorithmically sorted feed in 2009. It didn’t last very long. Users complained and engagement seemed to decline because it was harder for users to immediately see stories they cared about and applications were able to dominate the feed with spammy posts. As Slate writer Farhad Manjoo wrote at the time, “Every time you refresh the front page, there’s new stuff for you to read. Much of it isn’t very interesting, and because the stream moves so quickly, the little that is interesting gets drowned out by items that aren’t.” AllFacebook writer Nick O’Neill wrote, “having constant updates became annoying once the novelty factor wore off.”

Even though there were ways to filter the feed and hide posts, this wasn’t ideal. Facebook needs users’ feeds to be more immediately gratifying so that people want to return frequently. The company continues to experiment with how many posts to show users and how often. For instance, Ticker is more of a real-time feed, though even that isn’t a full firehose of posts and activity happening at any given time. The full stream would be tens of thousands of stories each day, meaning users would be likely to miss posts from people and pages simply because they couldn’t keep up.

How do I maximize my page’s reach?

Pages owners have to recognize that their content isn’t guaranteed placement in the feed and so it must be as interesting and engaging as possible. Before making a post, admins should consider, “Would I want to see something like this in my feed?” and better yet, “Would I rather see this than a post from a friend or another page?”

Many marketers focus on tricks for taking advantage of how they think Facebook’s ranking algorithm works, for example, posting photo albums to get more clicks or always asking a question with each post. Sometimes these tactics may be useful, but being natural is most important. Page owners should first consider what would make a post the most compelling or tell the best story, and not feel as though they need to follow hard and fast rules to get around EdgeRank. In fact, Facebook regularly makes changes to its algorithms to prevent apps and pages from gaming it, so any techniques marketers use to get in more people’s feeds are likely unsustainable.

Page owners can continue to improve their reach by keeping track of what’s working and what’s not. Clicks and negative feedback are important metrics that are visible from the Insights dashboard. Sometimes these numbers tell more of the story of why a post has a certain reach than Likes and comments do.

Targeting is another important way to increase the likelihood that a user will see and engage with a post. In August, Facebook introduced additional ways for admins to narrow down their fan base and show messages to a more relevant audience, including segmentation by age, gender, education, language, location, relationship status and interested in.

And, of course, there are paid ways to increase reach when pages have an important post to share. Promoted Posts, especially those that are targeted, can be effective in getting distribution, often at the top of News Feed.

How do I make sure to see more posts from pages I care about?

For users who want to see more posts from certain pages, there are a few ways to make this happen. Clicking, Liking, commenting on and sharing posts are good ways to indicate to Facebook that you enjoy a page’s content. Visiting the page directly is another cue.

Users can also add a page to an interest list. All posts appear within the interest list feed, and Facebook will share summaries from your interest lists in the main News Feed.

Some users are also beginning to see an option to turn on notifications for whenever a page posts, as well as a way to view a pages-only feed. Facebook is likely to continue to experiment with ways for users to provide lightweight cues or take explicit actions to improve the relevance of their feed.