- Facebook said it would change its News Feed so people would see more updates from friends and family and fewer organic posts from news publishers and brands.
- It’s a drastic change for Facebook, which says it thinks “passive” news consumption is bad for people’s mental health.
- But it’s also a canny commercial move, analysts told Business Insider, because now Facebook can squeeze money out of publishers to appear in the News Feed.
- Many publishers get huge amounts of referral traffic from Facebook and may now instead perceive Google as a more reliable platform partner.
Facebook has once again proved itself a massively unreliable partner to news publishers who need the site for referral traffic.
The company announced on Thursday that it would reduce the number of posts from businesses and media in the News Feed and instead prioritise updates from friends and family.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “passively” consuming updates from media and brands wasn’t good for people’s mental health and that the firm wanted to encourage people to post updates, comment on friends’ statuses, and share photos.
The thinking is that you don’t get much emotional nourishment from glancing through a stream of headlines but do feel happier when you’re interacting with your friends. That balance is currently skewed the wrong way in the News Feed, Facebook says.
While Facebook’s stated goal of making people feel happier on social media is commendable, it has left publishers in the dark about what to expect.
Big media organisations such as BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and – yes – Business Insider get huge amounts of referral traffic by publishing stories to people’s News Feed from their pages on the network.
December data from Parsely showed that Facebook accounted for 26% of news organisations’ traffic. More traffic makes these publications more appealing to advertisers, so anything that threatens those numbers is a big deal.
If Facebook alters the News Feed so that people see – and click on – fewer posts from these publishers, it follows that they will see a significant drop in readership.
“For publishers, Facebook is frustratingly mum about all of this,” Matti Littunen, a media analyst at Enders Analysis, told Business Insider. “There’s often very little warning before something like this happens – or when something happens, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.”
He added: “A key question is whether this will affect all publications in the same way.”
Littunen says one reason Facebook is having to make changes is that it has rewarded spam publishers as much as quality ones.
“Quality has not paid off on Facebook,” he said.
Facebook has only recently tried to fix that – for example, by using artificial intelligence to downrank posts that ask for shares or likes. But the damage may already be done, and thanks to low-quality posts from spammy publishers, media companies may have to pay the price in traffic.
Facebook tested a split News Feed – and publishers saw a massive drop in traffic
Littunen and Ian Maude, the group director of the digital marketing firm Be Heard Group, both pointed to Facebook’s experiments in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, and other emerging markets in which the firm split the News Feed.
One was for friends-and-family posts only, while the “explore” feed was for organic posts from businesses and publishers.
A joint report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University found that Slovakian news outlets saw a 400% drop in interactions and a two-thirds drop in reach.
Maude said Facebook could roll out the split News Feed feature more widely.
“It’s clearly driven by a desire not to alienate their users and to keep people using the platform,” he said.
Littunen described the experiment as “radical” and said Facebook could use the data from those tests to inform how to restructure the News Feed in other countries.
But it may not be as drastic as splitting it – and Facebook’s head of News Feed, Adam Mosseri, said in October there was no plan to roll out the feature widely.
Publishers have long been suspicious Facebook wants more money
Even if Facebook doesn’t do anything as drastic as relegating publishers to a secondary News Feed, any kind of change will look suspicious to media brands battling declines in organic reach.
“The suspicion has always been that cutting organic reach of commercial publishers on Facebook forces them to spend more on advertising to promote their posts,” Maude said.
He added it was noticeable that Facebook didn’t talk about cutting the number of paid-for ads in the News Feed, suggesting advertisers that cough up the money could see as much reach as ever.
“If anything, this could encourage publications to spend more on Facebook ads to try and maintain or increase their traffic,” he said.
The media’s biggest frenemy, Google, suddenly looks like a good bet
Given Facebook’s continued importance to publishers for traffic, they’re unlikely to abandon it even if that traffic becomes incrementally harder to obtain, Maude said.
“You’re likely to see more publications talking about how it’s important for them not to be so reliant on Facebook,” he said. “But when Facebook is such a huge platform, with such a huge audience, it’s difficult to walk away from it.”
Google, which both benefits publishers through search referral traffic and hinders them by eating up digital advertising spend, has been trying to improve its relationships with news organisations.
CEO Sundar Pichai met with news publishers to discuss how Google could help attract more paying customers. The firm also rejiggered its search engine to drop its unpopular “first-click free” feature, which ranked publishers higher if they offered some stories for free.
“Google is moving in the direction of trying to make the economics of news work,” Littunen said. “Facebook seems to be taking the attitude that news is a problem.”
Google still has some difficulties, he added, like the lack of a coherent approach to news publishers across its advertising, content, and search arms.
“If Google is serious about courting publishers, they will need to figure out how to make different parts of their business work together,” he said.
And finally, publishers might turn to a service that has always been more friend than enemy: Twitter.
One reason Facebook prioritised news in the News Feed was to compete with Twitter, which is still popular as a way to share real-time information. If Facebook scaled back those efforts, there would be room for Twitter to capitalise, Littunen said.
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