Don't Panic: Facebook Changes Won't Hurt You

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If you use the internet or watch the news at all, you will have seen a number of stories surface in the new year about a new change to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. The short version of the update reads out from most news outlets like so:

“Facebook is de-emphasizing content from brands and publishers in the News Feed and re-emphasizing content from family and friends.”

This is kind of true, or mostly true, but it isn’t exactly true. I want to give you my perspective on what the changes mean in general and specifically to our clients, why Facebook is doing this, and how this news should affect your use of Facebook as a small business.

The Overall Rundown

These changes continue a long run of alterations to the algorithm that decides who sees what and how much of it they see. Most of the changes over the last five years or so have been in the service of transforming Facebook from a free media channel into a leased media channel, meaning that in order to truly reach every follower you’ve acquired and/or to reach a new audience, you’re almost certainly going to have to pay for the privilege. Those of you who have worked with Swash Labs during that time know this well, and you also know that excellent content makes this process much cheaper, as engagement breeds engagement with an ad buy acting more as kindling than primary fuel.

This particular change is more of the same, but it does not affect the advertising platform at all. This means that the good content you create will continue to perform as well as it has in recent times, and may actually perform even more efficiently, since Facebook is now making more of an effort to show people the content their friends and family are engaging with. So, if your brand makes a good Page post that generates lots of engagement, chances are now probably better that the Facebook friends of those people engaging with your content will see it in their News Feed.

Note that simply liking a Page is probably not enough to get over the hill anymore, in terms of your Facebook friends seeing a post with lots of engagement from a Page that you like if you haven’t engaged with that particular post. You’ll have had to react to, share, or comment on that post in order for it to start making the rounds organically among your Facebook friends’ News Feeds. However, please note that with the new algorithm you can’t actually ask your audience to do those things. (See below)

Whomst will suffer?!

This change will have a large effect on publishers that rely on Facebook for organic traffic to their websites, such as online news outlets like Vice and Huffington Post, cable news outlets like MSNBC and Fox News, industry news sites like TechCrunch and Mashable, and social news content farms like topix, Bustle, and Buzzfeed. Many of these publishers pay not just for ads but also for special spots on the platform and, in some cases, outright traffic to their websites. The organic traffic generated by showing up in people’s News Feeds is a big part of the traffic mix, and this will take a hit.

Brands that try to game the system — i.e. posting 1 second videos as images to beat EdgeRank, clickbait practices, high-frequency posting, post a reaction to vote in this poll, etc — will be outright punished and see their traffic drop precipitously. Even doing a straightforward ask — comment below to get entered in a contest/vote for a thing/just to tell us what you think — will get sniffed out by the new algorithm and buried.

The good news for our clients is: we don’t do that stuff anyways! So your normal good and healthy Facebook practices will continue to serve you well. In fact, many of your audiences and traffic levels may be below the searching eye of these kinds of algorithmic changes, anyways. We looked at traffic logs for January to see if traffic to websites dipped for any of our clients after the algorithm update and the answer, thus far, is no.

It seems like Facebook does this all the time! Why?

You’re right. They do. They make a ton of small updates that they live-pipe into Facebook without announcement or sometimes, seemingly, even without testing. This one is a big change that will affect how many of their larger revenue partners use the platform, so they are letting everyone know about it.

Another reason they are notifying everyone of this change has to do with the 2016 election cycle. Facebook testified before a Senate subcommittee that they were caught off-guard by how quickly misinformation spread around their platform during campaign season, and they are not at all interested in refereeing the fight over which news and news outlets are real or fake. Add this to a user base growing past 2 billion and similar news-as-propaganda issues in Western Europe in the last half of 2016, and you find yourself in need of a pretty big change.

So, this is an attempt to slow down bad actors and to make it harder for fake news, as it were, to circulate so aggressively. I am not sure how well this will work, as Facebook is ultimately letting users vote on whether a news publisher is legitimate or not, but that may not be germane to the speed with which junk stuff spreads around the user base if the algorithm is tweaked the right way.

The main takeaway here is that this is an experiment. Facebook wants to have less negativity and less passive scrolling happening on their platform, and they hope this will move the needle in the right direction. Based on what they learn from this, I expect another big algorithm change to follow within this calendar year, and I expect it to be another one that primarily affects organic traffic and doesn’t do much with the advertising platform.

How does this affect me, and most small businesses using Facebook?

This change reinforces the need for good posting practices: post consistently but not too often, with a plan for quality content that is useful or interesting and comes from a thoughtful place, and features some sort of rich media as part of the post.

The hard sell is even more of a bad idea now than ever.

If you have events, make events, and use Facebook Local.

If it is a fit for your business — i.e. if you have a music venue or a live event or an interesting new shipment of products, or your business is service-based and you have an opportunity to educate your audience with useful info, consider Facebook Live. And if this works for you, Facebook Stories probably will, too.

As always — have a plan. Know why you’re doing something before you decide what you’re doing so your content has an achievable goal. And if you have questions or need help, don’t hesitate to ask us about anything and everything. We’re here to help!