January 26th, 2014 | 5 MIN READ

Hacking the Facebook News Feed Algorithm

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

If you manage a Facebook Page for you ecommerce business, you may have noticed your organic reach and engagement has tanked lately. Analysis of the Internet Retailer 500 Facebook Pages shows engagement sunk 27% in 2013 vs 2012, and rumors abound that Facebook's News Feed algorithm is increasingly hiding Page posts to force marketers to pay for exposure in the News Feed.

But are the rumors true?

Much of the chatter is in reaction to a recent algorithm tweak that changes the way Facebook treats text status updates from friends vs. Pages (emphasis mine).

Through testing, we have found that when people see more text status updates on Facebook they write more status updates themselves. In fact, in our initial test when we showed more status updates from friends it led to on average 9 million more status updates written each day. Because of this, we showed people more text status updates in their News Feed.

Over time, we noticed that this effect wasn't true for text status updates from Pages. As a result, the latest update to News Feed ranking treats text status updates from Pages as a different category to text status updates from friends. We are learning that posts from Pages behave differently to posts from friends and we are working to improve our ranking algorithms so that we do a better job of differentiating between the two types. This will help us show people more content they want to see.

Page admins can expect a decrease in the distribution of their text status updates, but they may see some increases in engagement and distribution for other story types.

This change is not in order to keep Page posts down, but to generate more status updates from individuals. Facebook believes (right or wrong) that status update volume is the outcome of users getting “content they want to see.”

Though engagement is undoubtedly a strong metric that Facebook considers, this particular algorithm update is geared to drive content creation behavior among its real-people users (which ironically only creates more content that Facebook has to figure out how to filter).

The average user’s network generates 1500 updates per day, but only a fraction of them appears in his or her News Feed. More individual status updates means more competition for organic slots. But this recent change alone cannot be blamed for the fall in Pages’ reach and engagement, it’s only one of thousands of ranking factors – it’s just the one making news right now. (And Facebook hints that other types of story content may see an increase in engagement).

How the Facebook News Feed Algorithm Works

The current News Feed algorithm is complex, and has evolved from its Edge Rank formula to a more robust recommendation engine with over 100,000 ranking factors. (A fantastic overview of how it works is posted at Marketing Land.)

As with Google, marketers can expect the News Feed algorithm to change frequently, with the occasional seismic shift that gets announced.

Aside from the different treatment of updates from friends and Pages, there are a few more aspects of the algorithm we know about:

  • Story bumping Older posts, even if they’ve been viewed in a Feed already, get a second, third or even fourth chance to appear in the Feed if engagement is strong – especially if a user’s friends have commented on, Liked or Shared the post.
  • Last actor Facebook looks at the last 50 interactions a user has made to gauge what type of content and/or Pages and friends he or she is most likely to want to see in the Feed. You’ll likely enjoy a brief boost in a user’s Feed after he or she interacts with one of your posts, but you’ll fade away again if another 50 interactions displace you. Or, your video post may be more likely to organically appear to fans who have recently engaged with similar content.
  • Context Device type and Internet connection speed also affect what makes it to the Feed. For example, slow connections may be shown less video, or older feature phones “lighter” content.
  • Freshness Post recency is a weighting factor, but unlike Twitter, the News Feed isn’t ruled by chronology. If you’ve posted 6 times from your brand Page, it doesn’t mean your most recent post has a better chance of appearing in a Feed than your prior posts that day. It comes down to what Facebook determines as most interesting or relevant to the individual based on last actor, story bumping or context.

What’s not a part of the organic algorithm is sponsored and promoted posts, which have their own dedicated slots in the Feed (with their own algorithm). It’s a myth that Page managers will need to pay to have any exposure at all. Rather, to combat the decrease in organic reach, there is an option to vie for the paid slots with Facebook’s advertising options.

Facebook continually runs tests to see what resonates with users and adjusts accordingly. For example, Facebook flat out tells us we’re better off using the Share feature than dropping a link into a status update. The content formats itself differently and users reward it with higher engagement. While this may not be part of the actual algorithm, algorithmic love for engagement will naturally reward links shared this way.

We don’t fully understand how Facebook is going to treat friend and Page posts differently, though we can assume there will be a skew towards showing more posts from friends, as Facebook is primarily a social network, not an RSS feed or email inbox. It’s possible future algorithm updates will swing in the favor of marketers in the future.

As individual Facebook users become more prolific posters and grow their friend and Page networks, News Feed reach will naturally dilute as there is more competition. No surprises here. Don’t expect to see average reach climb unless there’s a major shift in algorithm or user behavior to move the needle the opposite way. That doesn’t mean your organic Page reach has to decline. Keep testing content types (including calls-to-engagement) and make use of your Page Insights data to see what’s working, and refine your content strategy accordingly.

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