Facebook to Push Friends' Posts Higher, Likely to Publishers' Detriment

Reach and Referral Traffic Expected to Drop for Some

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His company's decisions affect countless businesses that rely on it to connect with consumers.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His company's decisions affect countless businesses that rely on it to connect with consumers. Credit: Michael Short/Bloomberg

It's a fact: Most publishers rely on Facebook for a significant portion of their referral traffic. As such, they watch carefully as Facebook makes decisions about what kind of content to prioritize in the all-important News Feed product that is at the center of the social network.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced a big change, intended to prioritize content from the friends and family of users in the News Feed, likely to the detriment of news article links from publishers.

Facebook announced a similar change to its algorithm in April 2015, but, engineering director Lars Backstrom wrote in a blog post, the company seemingly didn't go quite far enough.

"We've heard from our community that people are still worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about," he wrote. "For people with many connections this is particularly important, as there are a lot of stories for them to see each day. So we are updating News Feed over the coming weeks so that the things posted by the friends you care about are higher up in your News Feed."

And how will publishers be impacted? Here's the line that will likely cause some alarm bells to go off in newsrooms: "Overall, we anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages."

But, Mr. Backstrom said, not all "Page" authors will be impacted evenly. "For example, if a lot of your referral traffic is the result of people sharing your content and their friends liking and commenting on it, there will be less of an impact than if the majority of your traffic comes directly through Page posts," he said.

Basically, content that is popular enough to be shared through personal networks on Facebook is in good shape, though publishers who rely mostly on engagement on their dedicated page will be in a tougher spot.

Mathew Yurow, who previously served as director of audience development for The New York Times, and recently began as director of portfolio performance, cautioned publishers to take a deep breath.

"Let's not panic over what this means for publishers," he wrote on Twitter. It's been reported that users post less personal content on Facebook these days, he said, and Wednesday's announcement could just be read as "an attempt to juice what's left."

Publisher content, he said, is a central ingredient in the Facebook recipe. "Facebook without media is just Instagram," he wrote. "I'd much sooner bet that Facebook is a media platform without photos of friends, than a platform for photos without media."

In a separate Facebook blog post by Adam Mosseri, who serves as VP-product management for the News Feed, the company acknowledged that users expect to be informed by their News Feed, which is often where publishers play a role.

"Something that one person finds informative or interesting may be different from what another person finds informative or interesting -- this could be a post about a current event, a story about your favorite celebrity, a piece of local news, or a recipe," he wrote.

So users that have demonstrated a strong interest in news should not expect their feed to become 100% baby pictures from here on out.

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