How Does the Facebook Algorithm Work?

The Facebook algorithm. Did you get a chill down your spine from reading that? Every marketer does, seeing those two words. The infamous algorithm is the informal king of Facebook. It ultimately decides which posts users see in their feeds. But is it truly as scary as people think? Let’s find out!

Thankfully, we couldn’t have a better guide even if we tried (well, except for Mark Zuckerberg himself, but he’s a busy guy). No one knows how the algorithm really works, what really decides which posts appear in a user’s feed and which don’t. We asked Grzegorz Piechota, 2016 Nieman fellow at Harvard University, a former news editor at Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, and who investigated the infamous algorithm, a few qeustions. He gave us some interesting insights.

The mechanisms behind Facebook’s algorithm

First of all, Piechota pointed out that many marketers don’t understand the role of content on Facebook. “According to patent applications filed by Facebook employees that I analysed, every piece of content is a connection between people, or an edge between two nodes of the network, not a destination of any action.” he says. And adds that Facebook is “a network of people who communicate with each other in many ways that include sharing content. Content is not something users just consume, like in the past when they read a newspaper or watched a TV show; it is rather a form of expression of their identity, views, and emotions”, which is fundamental.

That’s why every piece of content on Facebook (be it a status update, new profile pic, link to a NYT publication, or a silly dog GIF) is scored differently for each user who sees it. Not only is it ranked, but it also considers the “affinity between content’s creators and users, and history of their interactions”. Piechota also notes that these features are more important for the algorithm than the the quality of the content itself. If no one talks about something, no matter how interesting and mind-blowing it is, you won’t see it in your News Feed. But how does he know this?

One of the reasons that marketers fear changes in the algorithm is because the mechanism is shrouded in mystery. Grzegorz Piechota at first thoroughly read through the official Facebook blog, but discovered that it wasn’t enough. Then the epiphany came. “If the News Feed algorithm is so precious, they had probably filed patent applications, ” he recalls. Indeed, they did, but it was surprisingly hard to find the patents, as it was not Facebook but it’s individual employees applying for them.

Facebook algorithm changes

So, what has changed lately in the algorithm? Facebook observed a steep decline in content uploaded by private users. This doesn’t please Mark Zuckerberg, because it means that people were not engaged enough to contribute. That decline could be linked to the growing presence of brands on Facebook. This might be one of the reasons Facebook decided to prioritize private posts in June 2016 and “give more space at the top of the News Feed for private stories on newborn babies, family parties etc.”  

The other reason for the declining organic reach for brands is how Facebook makes money. “Another thing is that the lower the organic reach for brands is, the better financial results of Facebook are. Facebook made a major tweak to it’s algorithm in spring 2015. As a result, brands needed to pay to be able to play. Since then, the company’s advertising revenue has soared: in Q2 2016 Facebook made $6.2 billion from ads, almost twice as much as the year before, ” explains Piechota.

What does this all mean for publishers and brands? Emotions are going to play a bigger role in stories. “When Facebook assigns scores to stories, it calculates the probability of the user interacting with a story, like sharing it. We know from various psychological studies that what triggers people to share online are emotions, especially high-arousal emotions, such as joy or fear, ” says Piechota. The other thing is that publishers and brands have to be ready to pay for reach. It’s only set to increase. So if you’re going to spend your money on social media, it’s better to know what you’re paying for. 

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