Shift in Facebook algorithm limits reach of media stories

Decline affecting news outlets from across political spectrum, says SocialFlow chief

Media companies are watching Facebook’s algorithm closely as people move to reading more and more of their news on the network. Photograph: Getty Images

Media companies are watching Facebook’s algorithm closely as people move to reading more and more of their news on the network. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Media companies publishing to Facebook are reaching 42 per cent fewer people with each story since January, a new report claims, putting pressure on the social network to explain how it has changed its algorithm.

Stories posted to Facebook reached an average of 68,000 users in May, down from about 117,000 in January, according to SocialFlow, a platform used by publishers to post half a million stories to Facebook and other social media sites each month.

The number of posts by each publisher has risen during the period so the total combined reach of all Facebook posts has fallen less sharply, from 42 billion in January to 37 billion in May.

‘User experience’

SocialFlow chief executive Jim Anderson said the fall shows Facebook has changed its algorithm.

“Facebook is constantly adjusting its algorithms up and down to tune the user experience,” he said.

“Back in the fourth quarter and through January, media companies were doing phenomenally well. Then Facebook made a change to the algorithm.”

Mr Anderson said Facebook might have prioritised posts from individuals to try to reward them for sharing more personal stories on the network, as reports said the company was worried people were writing less about events or thoughts from their own life. It could also have been trying to recalibrate the algorithm so people’s feeds did not feature several articles from the same news organisation consecutively and to prioritise video content, he added.

“These algorithms are pretty complicated. I’m not sure even Facebook engineers know their impact, they just have to measure and respond,” he said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Close examination

Media companies are watching Facebook’s algorithm closely as people move to reading more and more of their news on the network. Small tweaks to the algorithm that governs what people see in their news feed can have a significant impact on how much traffic is driven to a news publisher’s site.

Fears about the power of Facebook over the distribution of news emerged last month when a report claimed it had deliberately excluded conservative news and views from its “Trending Topics” sidebar, which purported to be a reflection simply of what is popular on the site.

Facebook has denied any interference and even invited right-wing commentators to its headquarters to discuss any apparent “liberal bias”.

However, it made changes to how the Trending Topics team functions, promising “additional controls and oversight”.

Mr Anderson said the decline shown in SocialFlow’s figures appeared to be affecting news outlets from across the political spectrum.

This trend is backed up by research from another social media tracker, NewsWhip, which says it has seen a slowdown in engagement – measured as likes and comments and shares – with links to host websites. The top­10 English language Facebook publishers, which range from the New York Times to BuzzFeed, saw engagements fall from 287 million a month in July 2015 to 162 million a month in April 2016.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016