In an unprecedented move, Facebook has announced that it is changing the way we experience their social network. However, rather than some sweeping interface change, Facebook is instead planning a far subtler shift that may have far more significant consequences. Our newsfeeds are now set to become far more populated with cat videos and pointless selfies as Facebook cracks down on the quantity of news and branded content we see. Many marketers are crying out in anguish, but could there be a silver lining to this change?
Facebook’s algorithm change this announced this week will see our News Feeds prioritising the posts of friends and family above those of news outlets and other posts from brand Pages. In an official post, Engineering Director Lars Backstrom announced “an upcoming change to News Feed ranking to help make sure you don’t miss stories from your friends.” He admitted that “this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some pages”, but stressed that the change is aimed at ensuring Facebook users hear and see more of the things they really care about, namely posts from their friends and families.
This decision was met with derision in many corners. As many as 44% of Americans use Facebook to find news, compared to just 9% on Twitter and 4% on LinkedIn. This suggests that Facebook could risk alienating a massive segment of their user base by restricting the quantity of news users see on an average visit. Meanwhile, Facebook currently generates 41.4% of referral traffic to publishers, beating even Google on 39.5%. Publishers as well as users are likely to feel burnt by this latest update.
Another potentially detrimental effect may hit Facebook where it hurts the most: in the pocket. By restricted the quantity of content users see from brands, these brands may begin to move away from Facebook, no longer able to generate the same levels of organic interaction as they used to. It is unclear whether sponsored posts will be affected, but recent statistics show that users are becoming increasingly distrusting of sponsored content, meaning if brands need to rely only on sponsored posts then they’re likely to take a hit.
(Image credit: Reuters)
So is it all doom and gloom? I don’t think so. This shift is, in effect, a tangible manifestation of Facebook’s driving value: that “friends and family come first”. By actively choosing to alter their content hierarchy and show you your friends’ and family’s posts above posts from Pages owned by brands and news outlets, Facebook is reconnecting with the principles that made it so successful in the first place: they are becoming a social network again. For too long, Facebook has inexorably shifted away from a place to share stories, pictures and updates with friends, and instead has become an endless stream of ads, unwanted branded posts and irrelevant news stories. There was once a time when I, having freshly returned from Glastonbury, would have shared my photos on Facebook immediately upon returning. However, my relationship with Facebook has changed so much that these snaps remain stubbornly on my phone. Could this algorithm update change this for me, and for millions of other users?
By favouring friends and family over publishers and brands, Facebook is taking a bold and very risky step. However, if handled correctly, the world’s largest social network may just be reopening the door to scores of internet users who currently no longer see it as relevant. By doing this, Facebook is also allowing savvier brands to become more, not less noticed, as those able to reach people organically through user-generated posts will find a much more receptive, less skeptical market. Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom after all…