Have you noticed anything different about your Facebook news feed recently?
Have you spotted a faster turnaround in news feed content? Maybe you’ve noticed fewer Ice-bucket challenge videos, and more breaking news? Well, if you have there’s no need to worry, or at least that’s what we’re being told. These subtle changes aren’t meant to pull the wool over users’ eyes or lead us up the garden path: they’re simply the result of Facebook’s latest tweak of its news feed algorithm. The new changes mean that we will all be seeing more fresh real-time content on our news feeds from now on, and a greater focus on topical news and timely posts.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has wrung the changes on its news feed.
Following criticism earlier this year that the social media platform apparently manipulated the newsfeeds of almost 700,000 users to see if it could affect their emotions, Facebook has embarked on a number of changes over recent months. In August this year it made some changes to trending topic prioritisation on its news feed, justifying the changes by saying “when we stop ranking and instead show posts in chronological order, the number of stories people read and the likes and comments they make decrease.”
So the precedent is there, but why more changes now? Well, the simple answer is that Facebook thinks the changes will result in a better overall experience for users. Facebook has been carrying out a number of tests on trending topics over the last few months. Having tested the algorithm changes on a “small number of posts” and found that the changes led to a more than 6 per cent increase in the number of users who Like, comment or share those posts, Facebook is pressing ahead and introducing the changes right across the board.
That may be all well and good, but it still doesn’t explain why Facebook is specifically focusing on breaking news.
Well, according to Facebook it’s all about relevance. Facebook has faced criticism in recent weeks for failing to give sufficient coverage to topical news: topics like the protests in U.S. city Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police. The story received massive coverage on other social media platforms like Twitter, but hardly featured on Facebook’s pages. The algorithm changes are, in part, a response to this.
In a blog by Facebook engineers, Erich Owens and David Vickrey, the social media platform said:
“We’ve heard feedback that there are some instances where a post from a friend or a page you are connected to is only interesting at a specific moment, for example when you are both watching the same sports game, or talking about the season premiere of a popular TV show.”
“There are also times when a post that is a day or two old may not be relevant to you anymore. Our latest update to news feed ranking looks at two new factors to determine if a story is more important in the moment than other types of updates.”
So what are these two new determining factors? Well, the first is obviously relevance and giving more priority to breaking news which is being shared:
“Currently one of the signals we look at is the total number of likes that a post has received when determining how high up to show it in news feed. With this update, we are going to begin looking at when people are choosing to like, comment and share.”
The second signal which will determine the content on the new-look news feed is how users are liking and responding to these news stories:
“If people are engaging with the post right after it is posted, and not as much a few hours later, this suggests that the post was most interesting at the time it was posted, but potentially less interesting at a later date. Based on this signal it is more likely to appear higher in news feed earlier on and lower at a later date.”
So how will these changes affect brand pages?
Well, Facebook says marketers shouldn’t expect to see “significant changes” in their posts’ distribution as a result of the latest update. However, it does note that if a brand posts about a trending topic or if a post generates a lot of engagement early on that then drops off, that post may begin to see increased distribution initially but less distribution over time. Facebook added that its news feed updates would also make the ads seen on individual user’s news feeds more relevant, and will from now on in weigh feedback differently, basing its assessment on how often consumers hide ads or other news content.