Facebook today confirmed dwindling engagement with public posts to subscribers cited by The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, other journalists, and I, but calls us isolated cases, noting public figures with more than 10,000 fans are now getting 34 percent more Likes and comments than a year ago. While Facebook often changes the news feed to improve the user experience, the inconsistency is irksome.
So here’s the story. Yesterday, Nick Bilton of the New York Times wrote that when using Facebook’s Twitter-esque Subscribe feature to post public updates to his subscribers, he’s getting a lot fewer Likes and comments than a year ago. He suggested this is because Facebook is showing more ads instead.
Other journalists including me cited similar experiences, where our Facebook follower counts had grown significantly, but we were getting equal or less engagement now than in the months after Subscribe launched. I suggested that along with the presence of ads, people sharing more posts that compete for news feed space and Facebook’s tendency to give more feed presence to new products may have been responsible for the drought.
In a bit of damage control, Facebook sent out the following statement, hoping to frame these cases as flukes. Here’s the full-text, with my comments in brackets.
Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest. [TechCrunch: That's true, and overall it's a good thing, but the quietly rolled-out fluctuations can cause serious problems for businesses, app developers, and professional content producers.]
There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true. We want to clear up any misconceptions by explaining how the News Feed algorithm works. [TechCrunch: Yes, Facebook isn't actively suppressing organic posts, but news feed ads take up room, and may push organic posts further down the feed where they're less likely to be read.]
First, in aggregate, engagement – likes, comments, shares – has gone up for most people with followers. In fact, overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year. [TechCrunch: This is a relatively vague metric on paper, but Facebook says it is corrected for subscriber count growth, so most Subscribe users should have more engagement per post per subscriber than a year ago.]
Second, a few data points should not be taken as representative of what actually is happening overall. There are numerous factors that may affect distribution, including quality and number of posts. [TechCrunch: That's true, but it's a bit suspicious that so many journalists had the same experience. Maybe there weren't enough data points for a scientific analysis, but this seems dismissive.]
News Feed shows people the most relevant stories from their friends and Pages they are connected to. In fact, the News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don’t replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones. [TechCrunch: People need to accept this as fact. It doesn't mean ads aren't reducing the visibility of organic posts, but ads are not straight up replacing organic posts.]
Some other background points for context:
• The argument here is based on a few anecdotes of one post from one year to a totally different post from another year. [TechCrunch: I personally compared a half dozen posts from a year ago and last month and saw equal or less engagement now compared to a year ago despite my follower count increasing 5X to 10X.]
• This is an apples-to-oranges comparison; you can’t compare engagement rates on two different posts year over year.
• These anecdotes are taken as representative of what is happening overall. [TechCrunch: Anecdotes, yes, but a fair number of them.]
• In fact, the opposite is happening overall – engagement has gone up 34% on posts from people who have more than 10,000 followers. [TechCrunch: Except for the the next line...]
• For early adopters of Follow, we do see instances where their follower numbers have gone up but their engagement has gone down from a year ago. [TechCrunch: Confirmation that what Bilton and I said about our experiences is true.]
• When we first launched Follow, the press coverage combined with our marketing efforts drove large adoption. A lot of users started following public figures who had turned on Follow.
• Over time, some of those users engaged less with those figures, and so we started showing fewer stories from those figures to users who didn’t engage as much with their stories.
• The News Feed changes we made in the fall to focus on higher quality stories may have also decreased the distribution for less engaging stories from public figures.
• In the past six months, however, we have introduced changes to solve the above instance – the goal being to promote more content from public figures. These include organic units in NF such as “most shared on ;,” “most shared about ;,” and redesigned feed stories for link shares that feature larger images and longer descriptions. Our index of partners has already seen a significant increase in traffic (35%) due to the introduction of these units. [TechCrunch: These may help drive traffic to the right place, but seem to reduce the influence of public figures as the posts don't seem to come directly from them with their commentary. The 35% increase in traffic is to news sites and reader apps, not the individual writers and public figures that share the links.]
• We are constantly working to improve people’s experience with News Feed, and changes like the above we think will surface more of the right posts to the right people.
Long story short, the changes Facebook makes are probably good for most people. That’s not really the issue. What people are pissy about is that the changes sometime hurt businesses and self-serving public figures. And so I’ll reiterate what I said yesterday. We shouldn’t look a free publishing gift horse in the mouth, but Facebook shouldn’t be surprised if professionals and businesses are a little nervous about depending on it.
For more on this issue, read: “Facebook’s News Feed, A Skittish Gift Horse”
[Image Credit: Twenty Percent Cooler]