Facebook news feed changes. Again. ‘Clickbait’, image posts and organic reach

Facebook news feed

Despite appearances, plush ‘f’ is not the Facebook logo. © Dave Earley | the earley edition

Facebook has introduced more changes to the news feed that will significantly affect news distribution on the platform. Their news feed changes always do but, for what it’s worth, I think this change – announced on Tuesday and aimed at “click-baiting headlines” and “sharing links in posts” – is the most important so far for publishers.

In a nutshell, in order to reduce the effectiveness of “click-baiting headlines”, Facebook say they’re going to give more weight to time on site. Or, more correctly, they’re going to give more weight to time off site – away from Facebook. Without clearer explanation from Facebook this is somewhat of an unknown – so is less in your control than you might think. More on that below.

The second part of the news feed change is clearly and completely in your control. Posts where a link is included in the post text will not be shown to as many people. This is a direct hit to image posts with links and, if taken as gospel, you can mitigate your losses here by using link posts instead of images with links in captions.

1. Click-baiting headlines

With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.

Previously, more clicks on your post meant more visibility in the news feed. They’re not saying that this is bad, but it will no longer be enough to generate decent post clicks to win the battle for readers’ news feeds. Facebook will consider something “click-bait” if people come back to the news feed too quickly, or bounce off your site. On the surface, this sounds like a great move for news outlets. If you have quality content that people want to spend time reading (and everyone thinks they do), Facebook will reward you by showing it to more people.

The catch is, there’s no way of knowing at this point what length of time on site Facebook will consider high or low quality, and their subsequent penalty or reward in news feed visibility. Social traffic has a high bounce rate and low visit duration generally, so I’ll be interested to see if many pages see significant drops in Reach before Facebook recalibrates.

Nominally, the measure is meant to signify the quality of content you’ve linked to, but time spent doesn’t strictly relate to quality – on several levels. Firstly, while engaged time with a story can be a very powerful indicator, as my colleague Mary Hamilton has pointed out previously, time on site is not always an accurate measure for quality of news content.

Secondly, it may sound like Facebook is considering page duration, but they are not. They can’t. As they say themselves, Facebook can only consider “time away from Facebook after clicking a link”. What you do or where you go between leaving the news feed and coming back to it, Facebook will attribute to the quality of the link you clicked, even if you immediately ‘bounced’ off that link to something else.

Read Mary’s take on these recent changes Facebook’s news feed here..

2. Sharing links in posts

The second part of Facebook’s announcement is directly related to the first, and that is a change to prefer link posts over image or status posts.

With this update, we will prioritize showing links in the link-format, and show fewer links shared in captions or status updates.

For a long time I’ve advised using image posts with a shortURL included because for me they’ve always performed better in Reach than link posts. Always. Without fail. Interestingly, Facebook say they’re making this change not because of better Reach performance, but because of perceived click-through value:

We’ve found that people often prefer to click on links that are displayed in the link format, rather than links that are buried in photo captions.
[…]
In our studies, these posts have received twice as many clicks compared to links embedded in photo captions.

The potential for an image post (and its ‘buried’ link) to go viral is also much higher because the publisher controls the message – via the image caption. Sadly, it looks like this won’t be the case any more if image posts with links will get muted.

Consider this image post from the Courier Mail a few weeks ago. The story was from Perth, not local, and was covered by news outlets around the world. This is an image post with a link included in the caption. It received 88,000 Likes, 6,700 Shares, and 2,300 Comments. And that bit.ly shortURL? A massive 216,000 clicks through to the story.

As explicitly stated by Facebook, before this news feed change that mass of clicks would have been GOLD to news feed ranking, and combined with almost 90,000 Likes the Reach on that post would have kept pushing it higher in the news feed. Now its effect could be doubly muted by the presence of the shortURL in the post text, and the fact that it was an image instead of link post. It will be a shame if Facebook reduces the effectiveness of good images shared by news organisations. It’s also interesting to note that Facebook doesn’t mention video posts here, and whether the presence of links in post text will affect Reach. It will be worth experimenting with that.

Here’s an example of a link post, if you’re not sure what the difference is between the two. The headline and standfirst are automatically pulled in and displayed. But click on the link and see if you can spot the difference. It’s a way publishers will be able to, in some small way, still control the message content as it spreads.

Every news feed tweak can change your brand’s potential organic Reach, drastically if that tweak is to the post type you most frequently use. So be aware of the news feed changes so you can adapt and at least try to maintain your organic Reach and engagement levels, if not improve them, and amend your post strategy if you need to.