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Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather

By - November 09, 2012

(image) The past month or so has seen the rise and fall of an interesting Internet tempest – the kind of story that gets widely picked up, then quickly amplified into storms of anger, then eventually dies down as the folks who care enough to dig into the facts figure out that the truth is somewhere outside the lines of the original headline-grabbing story.

The topic this time around centers on Facebook’s native ad unit called “Sponsored Stories,” and allegations that the company is gaming its “Edgerank” algorithm such that folks once accustomed to free promotion of their work on Facebook must now pay for that distribution.

Edgerank determines the posts you see in your Facebook newsfeed, and many sites noticed that sometime early this Fall, their traffic from Facebook shrank dramatically. Others claimed traffic had been declining since the Spring, but it wasn’t until this Fall that the story gained significant traction.

I’ve been watching all this play out – first via an angry post on the New York Observer site in which the author posits that Facebook is “broken on purpose” so as to harvest Sponsored Story revenue. An even angrier post on the same theme came five weeks later on a site called Dangerous Minds. From it:

Spring of 2012 was when bloggers, non-profits, indie bands, George Takei, community theaters, photographers, caterers, artists, mega-churches, high schools, tee-shirt vendors, campus coffee shops, art galleries, museums, charities, food trucks, and a near infinite variety of organizations; individuals from all walks of life; and businesses, both large and small, began to detect—for it was almost imperceptible at first—that the volume was getting turned down on their Facebook reach. Each post was now being seen only by a fraction of their total “fans” who would previously have seen them.

The author goes on to argue that Facebook was breaking the implicit contract between himself – an independent blogger – and Facebook, the corporation.

…as a publisher of a medium readership blog, I used to get a great deal from using Facebook—but I understood it to be a two-way reciprocal arrangement because I was driving traffic back to Facebook as well, and reinforcing their brand awareness with prominent widgets on our blog.

Now, if you’ve read my Thneeds post, you know I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I believe large social platforms like Facebook and Twitter “harvest” content from the Indpendent Web, and leverage the traffic and engagement that this content creates on their platforms to their own benefit via scaled advertising offerings. Most of us are fine with the deal – we promote our work on social sites, social sites drive traffic back to us. We like that traffic, either just because we like more folks reading our work, or, in the case of commercial sites like this one, because we serve ads against it.

Now, as I’ve noted many times over the past six months, this bargain is breaking down, because it’s getting harder and harder to monetize traffic using standard display advertising units. That’s not Facebook’s problem, per se, it’s ours. (See here for my suggestions as to how to solve it).

Nevertheless, for many sites, the spectre of losing significant traffic from Facebook means a serious blow to revenues. And from the point of view of the Dangerous Minds blogger, Facebook first cut his traffic off, then began asking him to pay to get it back (in the form of promoting his posts via Sponsored Stories).

This makes for a very good narrative: corporate greed laid bare. It got picked up by a lot of sites, including Ars Technica and even the aforementioned George Takei, who is upset that he’s lost the ability to push his posts to all 2.9 million of his Facebook fans.

Turns out, the truth is a lot more complicated. I’ve done some reporting on this issue, but not nearly as much as TechCrunch did. In a follow up to the Dangerous Minds story, TechCrunch claimed to have debunked the entire story. Titled Killing Rumors With Facts: No, Facebook Didn’t Decrease Page Feed Reach To Sell More Promoted Posts, the story argues that Facebook didn’t change its algorithms to drive up revenue, but rather to cull “spammy posts” from folks’ newsfeeds.

Facebook has always shown just a percentage of all possible posts in a given person’s newsfeed. Anyone paying attention already knew that. The company uses its Edgerank algorithm to determine what it thinks might be interesting to an individual, and sometime in the past few months, I can confirm through sources which wish to remain anonymous that Facebook made a pretty significant change to Edgerank that penalized posts that it felt were not high quality.

Of course, that begs the question: How does Facebook determine what “quality” is? The answer, in the main, is by measuring engagement – is the post shared, liked, clicked on, etc? If so, then it is seen as quality. If not, it’s demoted in value.

Is this sounding familiar to anyone yet? In short, Facebook just executed a Panda.

I held back from writing anything till this predictable cycle played out, because I had a theory, one that I believe is now confirmed: Facebook is now making its own weather, just like Google, and in the past couple months, we’ve witnessed the first widespread instance of a Facebook weather event.

For those of you who don’t know quite what I’m talking about, a bit of history. Ten or so years ago, the ecosystem around search began to notice shifts in how Google drove traffic around the web. Google would make a change to its algorithms, and all of a sudden some sites would see their traffic plummet (other sites sometimes saw the opposite occur). It seemed to those injured that the only way to get their Google traffic back was to buy Google AdWords – corporate greed laid bare. This story played out over and over, to the point where the weather events started to get names, just like hurricanes do. (The first was called Boston).

Early last year Google made a major change to its algorithms that penalized what it believed was lower quality content. Dubbed “Panda,” the changes targeted “content farms” that cranked out SEO friendly pages as AdWords bait. This had dramatic effects on many sites that specialized in “gaming” Google. It also hit sites that weren’t necessarily playing that game – updates like Panda often create collateral damage. Over time, and as it always does, Google fine-tuned Panda until the ecosystem stabilized.

I believe that Facebook is now learning how to manage its own weather. I don’t know the Dangerous Minds website well enough to know if it deserved the drop in traffic that occurred when Facebook had its Panda moment. But one thing does strike me as interesting to note: A significant drop in traffic means a particular site is losing audience that has proactively decided to click on a link inside their newsfeed. That click means the person leaves Facebook and goes to the the Dangerous Minds site. To me, that’s a pretty serious sign of engagement.

However, one might argue that such a signal is not as important to Facebook as internal ones such as “liking” or “sharing” across the Facebook network. To that end, I am sure we’ve not heard the last round of serious grumbling that Facebook is gaming its own Edgerank algorithm to benefit Facebook’s internal goals – to the detriment of the “rest of the web.” Be they publishers or folks like George Takei, who after all wants to push his Facebook fans to any  number of external links where they might buy his books or sign up to meet him at the next Comic Con, the rest of the web depends on “social traffic” from Facebook. The question is, should they optimize for that traffic, or will their efforts be nullified in the next Edgerank update?

Facebook is learning how to tread the delicate line between its own best interests, and those of its users – and the Internet That Is Not Facebook. Google does this every day – but it has a long history as a distributor of traffic off its main site. Facebook, not so much. Over time, the company will have to decide what kind of a relationship it wants to have with the “rest of the web.” It will probably have to start engaging more openly with its own ecosystem, providing guidance on best practices and how to avoid being penalized. This is a practice that took Google years to hone, and many still think the company has a lot of work to do.

Regardless, Facebook is now making its own weather. Now comes the fun part: Trying to predict it.

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17 thoughts on “Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather

  1. brandonfritz says:

    What will be interesting to see… is what happens if/when Facebook releases their AdWords competing product… is traffic to publishers or reach of brand pages still minimized?

  2. LeadDreamer says:

    Strikes me Google’s “Panda” situation, and Facebook’s Edgerank are as diametrically opposed as possible. In the case of Google, it was presenting results as objective but, most importantly, ***without knowing the requester’s preferences in advance***.

    In Facebook’s case, the user has **already expressed a preference*** by clicking “like”, **and*** had the power to “unlike” whenever they choose. What Facebook has done is decided ***they know better*** then the user’s already expressed preference, decreased what each user is seeing from ***pages the user selected*** and demanding payment before the user can see content **they selected to see***.

    As such, Google is trying to guess at what the users ***wants***, while Facebook specifically ***doesn’t care*** what the users wants.
    No, Panda and Edgerank are not the same at all.

    • johnbattelle says:

      You make a fine point on the specifics. And I think it only strengthens my overall thesis: That Facebook has to deal with its relationship to the rest of the web via weather events.

    • Jim says:

      Well put. We are not able to simply get updates we have requested….FB decides what we really wanted.

  3. This is an interesting line: “…in the case of commercial sites like this one…”

  4. george says:

    There is no such thing as a free lunch! I recognize that Facebook needs to drive more revenue but this resembles your typical tollbooth model, which will only water down the user’s ability to self-promote and further elevate web friction.

  5. I guess it is not only facebook that is having that kind of problem but I think other social media too and maybe they are looking for alternatives on how to handle the problem. Let’s just look on the brighter side on how we can utilize more of its functionality, after all no software application is perfect.

  6. [...] A thoughtful consideration of the much debated changes to how Facebook shares items from users news feed from  John Battelle’s Search Blog [...]

  7. very interesting topic John. I agree with the general conclusion that Facebook will need to better interact with its ecosystem. Google is also doing new things to integrate Google+ as one of its influencers. The question regarding Google is how much of an influence will they give the other social media shares/likes?

  8. joey89924 says:

    just look on the brighter side on how we can utilize more of its
    functionality, after all no software application is perfect.
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  9. [...] is a very different vantage from the 30,000-foot view we normally hear about, where entire weather systems are created when Google changes its search algorithm, or Amazon moves against Apple. These are [...]

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  11. MOS SEO Services says:

    Interesting topic. Thanks!