Don't Panic About Facebook's 'Family and Friends' Update

It's been about three weeks since the panic of Facebook’s latest News Feed algorithm update began. In the ominous release out of Menlo Park, it was this sentence many cited as evidence of the news industry’s impending doom: "Overall, we anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages."

A closer look, however, reveals just how premature most of this panic was (and still is). For one thing, the “switch” had just been flipped – there was no concrete data upon which to base the panic – you can’t complain about what hasn’t happened.

It’s as if your mechanic says, “Hey, we had to make a change under the hood of your car, and your mileage probably won’t be as good. Can’t say for sure how much, but you’ll probably notice a difference.”

Before you even pull out of the garage, you list your car on Craigslist, 20-mile commute be damned! Public transportation is an option, you tell yourself. Come to think of it, your bike hasn't been getting much use. Or maybe you'll just start walking.

Who cares if your car gets you where you need to go much faster than anything else? You’re losing a few miles per gallon on your gas. And now you would rather walk 20 miles than go to Exxon a little more frequently?

If you’re lost, the car is Facebook (and/or Google, but more on that soon). Public transportation could be email or Twitter or Reddit – a second-tier (for most) referral source that is significant, but not nearly as strong as Facebook and Google. Your bike is something like Tumblr or Pinterest. Walking is LinkedIn or Peach. (You can interchange these lower-tier traffic sources depending on your situation. It's just an example.)

If you think walking 20 miles to work is a viable substitute for driving, just because your mileage isn’t as good – before you even know how your mileage is affected – you’re nuts. Just like it would be silly to try to get the same referral traffic from LinkedIn or Tumblr or a low-level aggregator to replace what you might lose from Facebook.

Secondly, significant changes have been made to the algorithm in the past and media organizations survived. (With some of the ones with more original content even thriving.) You don’t need to throw your Facebook strategy out the window every time there’s a News Feed adjustment. Just like you don’t buy a new car every time your vehicle needs a repair. (Unless you’re rich, which I guess is the equivalent of having VC money; or maybe your parents bought your car for you, which is like getting paid by Facebook to use its products.)

Let’s start with the fact that Facebook, for many publishers, is far and away the top source of social referrals. Across the industry, on average, only Google can compete with Facebook among overall referrers.

According to Parsely, Facebook (41.4 percent) and Google (39.5) combined to drive more than 80 percent of overall traffic to publishers in its partner network for January and February 2016. To compare: Yahoo drove 3.5 percent, Twitter 1.5 percent.

As recently as June, Facebook’s and Google’s shares of traffic both dropped (slightly), but Facebook widened its lead: 40.24 vs. 35.7 percent.

It’s important to remember that this latest algorithm change is expected to affect publisher pages – their owned properties. It helps the ranking of posts with links shared by profiles i.e. “friends and family.”

Even if publishers lost 100 percent of the traffic driven by their pages, Facebook would still remain the No. 2 overall traffic source for most of them. In my experience at three different news outlets, pages drive anywhere from 10-40 percent of a brand’s Facebook traffic. A wide range, yes, but let’s take the high end to analyze a worst-case scenario.

If Facebook drives 40 percent of your overall traffic, and you lose 40 percent (all the traffic from your page) of that 40 percent (total Facebook traffic), you’re down 16 percent overall. Yes, that’s huge, but it’s also the most extreme example.

More realistically, you’re not going to shut down your page. You’re going to keep it running, and you might lose 10 percent of your owned page traffic. Assuming you get 25 percent of your Facebook traffic from your page, that’s only 2.5 percent of your total Facebook traffic. And even that still feels like a worst-case scenario, without making any strategy adjustments.

It’s also not taking into account the fact that you may see more traffic from Facebook users (“friends and family”) sharing your links due to the change. The net effect might be that you don’t lose any traffic. You might even gain some if your content is so good (and original) and your readers increasingly share it while traffic from your page holds steady.

You see, you may find a new route to drive to work that isn’t as hard on your car, and your mileage may not change. It might even improve! Don’t sell your car. Don’t give up on your Facebook page.

History as a Guide

Facebook would rather rely on signals such as “how many comments is this story getting” and “how quickly are people sharing it” than on editorial guidelines that attempt to sort stories by their significance. In part, this is because developing a sense of news judgment for every city on the planet is a daunting task. -The Verge

The last time so many people were running around with their hair on fire was more than a year ago, a moment captured well on The Awl by John Herrman, who now works for the New York Times.

Herrman noted last May: "Eventually, publishers’ numbers will even out as competition increases. Easy traffic will be harder to come by, and certain tricks — as on the web — will wear out and become useless."

As Instant Articles has now been opened up to everyone (as planned), a certain equilibrium appears to have been reached. No one is complaining about Instant Articles anymore because 1. the playing field is even and 2. some publishers are even happy with the results.

Along with the announcement of the algorithm tweak, Facebook also published, for the first time, guidelines for News Feed. Both there and in the note about the particular variable change, it emphasizes that “Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to…” which for them means helping “you see more posts from your friends and family.”

It’s been almost a year since the IA release, and the media industry is still standing (and for some publishers, able to make more money from Instant Articles than they could on their own). Previous algorithm changes brought about similar panic, yet Facebook remains a significant (read: top) source of referral traffic for publishers.

But this time is different, people say. Here’s why:

Facebook VP Adam Mosseri, who manages the News Feed product teams, confirmed that publishers will see a "small but noticeable" decrease in organic reach.

“There are more and more publishers on Facebook and they’re publishing more and more often,” Mosseri said, “and we want to make sure friends and family stay a core part of the experience.” -Recode

“Some publishers may go up, some publishers may go down, some publishers may go down more.” -Mosseri in the Wall Street Journal

There’s an interesting point made in Mosseri’s quotation to Recode that’s getting overlooked. “There are more and more publishers on Facebook and they’re publishing more and more often.”

The amount of physical screen space per post in News Feed hasn’t changed significantly in years – mobile or desktop. Yet the amount of content you can find there – and number of sources providing it – increases daily. In addition to Facebook’s 1.65 billion active users, there are hundreds (thousands?) of prominent publishers with Facebook pages. Many publishers have multiple pages – they’re competing with themselves, in some ways.

Page reach – along with the reach for user profiles – has been going down for quite some time, simply because there is more content in the same amount of space. Sure, people spend about 50 minutes per day on Facebook’s properties, but that’s not nearly enough to view more than a fraction of the content served to each user on a daily basis. The larger the denominator, the smaller the quotient.

So yes, average reach per page will continue to go down, with or without algorithm changes. But even with the seemingly seismic shifts of the past, the only publishers that have truly been crippled by algorithm changes are the ones who built their content strategies around Facebook instead of building their Facebook strategies around their content.

What’s Happened Since the Latest Change?

Within 48 hours of the announcement, I noticed significant alterations to the order of posts in my News Feed. My observations are anecdotal, but I have heard similar things from multiple people who are closely monitoring the situation.

The first big change that jumped out to me was how far I had to scroll to find something – anything – posted by a page. The first time I counted, it wasn’t until I got to the 17th item in my News Feed that I saw a first-hand (not shared) post from a page – any page. Everything in the first 16 slots of my (desktop) News Feed was either sponsored, or posted by a friend.*

*About three weeks since the announcement, this change already seems to have been watered down a bit. e.g. I got on Facebook the morning of July 12 and the first four non-sponsored slots in my (desktop) News Feed were link posts from pages, and only one was an Instant Article.

The second significant change I’m seeing is this matter of grouping. I had seen it before, but not at the rate I am now. By “grouping” I mean when Facebook bundles a number of updates into one block in the News Feed, usually sharing three or more of them, and hiding the rest under a “Read More” option.

I have heard people say this is terrible, because it’s burying a lot of their posts in one block. I disagree. These groupings actually take up much more space in the News Feed than a single post would, and it gives users multiple options to catch their eye instead of a single post. (It’s not often that I see more than one post from the same publisher in a single News-Feed session.)

But guess what? I’m seeing much less of this lately, too. Facebook is always making tweaks to its 100,000-plus variable algorithm, and they don’t all get a big public announcement. Perhaps it’s already reeling back some aspects of the “Family and Friends” update.

Either way, these aren’t necessarily bad things. Because even though Facebook sets the rules, naturally, for its News Feed, its changes have generally created a more competitive, less click-baity environment. For quality publishers of a certain self-respect, this should be a good thing.

Forget Instant Articles and videos and Live videos and all the other Facebook products the media industry chases around like a rare Pokemon in the middle of a highway – what continues to win out, and will hopefully always win out, is quality content.

It’s cliche – even annoying to hear – especially when preached to us by a tech behemoth that claims not to be a media company, yet continues to play a major role in how information is delivered to its users. But it’s also true. Original + Quality = Success, no matter what the platform.

Everything Will Be All Right

Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of U.S. adults say they get their news from social media, and Facebook has more users than any other social network, according to Pew.

Furthermore, 66 percent of Facebook users say they get news from the platform. The only social platform on which a higher percentage of users get news there is Reddit (70). Twitter, whose identity is more closely tied to news than any other social network, comes in third (59).

Again, this big, scary algorithm change is only supposed to affect pages – which will leave more room for posts shared by profiles. If you have a loyal readership that shares a lot of your content, this might actually help you.

From Newswhip: “As long Facebook users continue to engage with and share these types of stories, it’s unlikely that they’ll be completely demoted in news feeds.”

And eMarketer: "...it appears there will be less of an impact on publishers who rely on users to share their stories on the social platform..."

Before you sell your car – or worse – drive it off a cliff, consider whether things are as bad as they seem (or if they’re bad at all), and whether there’s anything you can do about it. If the answers are yes and no, respectively, you’re either not looking hard enough, or your content is of relatively no value, and not just on Facebook.