Features

Four months on: How Facebook’s algorithm change has affected publishers

In January this year, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the tech giant would return its focus to family and friends, resulting in a deprioritization for publishers. Four months on, Mumbrella’s Zoe Samios assesses the impact locally.

On Tuesday evening, I took a scroll through Facebook, interested to see how founder Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement from January might have implicated my own feed.

The quick 30-second scroll was telling. Almost every piece of content was from a friend, be it an image or a status. Sure, there were media companies ‘in the feed’, but they were advertisements and sponsored posts.

Facebook’s algorithm change is visible from the consumer perspective, but how are publishers faring?

In fact, the first twenty posts in my feed did not contain the once organically-served news articles I enjoyed reading.

But the result isn’t surprising.

“You’ll see less public content posts from businesses, brands and media”, Zuckerberg had warned four months ago, during an announcement stating that posts from friends and family would be prioritised.

No publisher could really tell what the true impact would be at at the time. Nor could I. But regardless, a change to algorithm had most looking closely at their numbers, waiting to see how this one sentence would impact them.

At the exact same time, Facebook made a slight tweak in the way it defined organic content. Now it is based measured the same way as paid reach. The new definition sees organic reach counted when an unpaid post enters a person’s screen, while previously it was counted when a post was placed into a newsfeed.

Four months on, there’s a couple of areas to take into consideration. For those publishers that suffered, the crux of the problem lay predominantly in their dependency on the platform.

As one of the world’s leading social platforms, Facebook is – or was – good at something in particular: audience reach.

For smaller publishers that entered the market in the last five or so years, a thirst for audience reach ended in a detrimental dependency.

But with publisher’s reach dramatically reduced, how are some of Australia’s biggest publishers coping? Or has the reduce in ‘reach’ instead provided some unforeseen positive effects?

Over the last week or so, Mumbrella asked a number of publishers about what they’re seeing. That, coupled with six months of analysis from Facebook’s social monitoring platform, CrowdTangle, reveals the impact.

The publisher’s view

In the last four months, publishers have seen a number of different changes to content, based on Facebook reach, engagement and search.

One of the most common changes publishers saw was a decline in reach, which can be attributed to both a change in the way Facebook’s measures reach, as well as the algorithm.

The other area which the majority of publishers discuss is engagement, which for most, has increased. Despite the reduced audience size, publishers are finding followers are more loyal, spend more time on site and are more actively engaged with content.

Some have even seen an uplift in traffic referrals from Facebook to their domains as a result of the changes.

Unsurprisingly, video engagement has also become a bigger referral of traffic, and those publishers with video content have not been impacted severely.

Here, they report their findings, and how it has impacted strategy.

Chris Wirasinha, Co-founder of Pedestrian TV

Chris Wirasinha, co-founder of Pedestrian TV

“Pedestrian’s had a long-term strategy to move away from dependency on social as a referral source that has been paying dividends for us as a brand. Our current traffic acquisition mix sees both organic SEO and our EDM & direct traffic now larger than social as a referral source for Pedestrian and continuing to grow. This was a trend that we’ve seen since late 2017 before the Facebook algorithm changes were announced.

“In regards to social referrals from Facebook since the Newsfeed changes were announced, specifically between the 1st of February and the 15th of May 2018, Pedestrian’s seen a 9% decline in users from Facebook when compared to the corresponding period (October – January). However the audience that’s being driven from social to the site is more engaged than in the past. Our time on site for Facebook referrals has grown with a corresponding 16% increase in time-spent for the same period.

“Despite some declines on the whole Social still has the power to deliver huge results. In the past seven days Pedestrian.tv’s delivered a market leading 6.6m people reached and 2.1m people engaged across our Facebook posts – so it’s still an important part of our strategy and will continue to be so in the future.”

Sarvesh Jasuja, Vice Australia’s social growth manager

Sarvesh Jasuja, social growth manager at Vice Media Australia

“Yes, organic reach overall has declined, but this can also be attributed to the change in how Facebook measures reach (which now results in a lower number). This happened at a similar time to the algorithm change. We’re still seeing plenty of posts with good engagement getting big reach though, and at times better than before. It’s just that with fewer posts being shown to people, some of the less highly-engaged pieces aren’t hitting figures they once might have organically.

“Engagement’s not as evenly spread out across posts as before – with fewer links and videos showing higher peaks. People haven’t stopped engaging on FB, they’re just engaging with fewer publisher posts, most likely because they’re seeing less of them. So in a nutshell; engagement for VICE Australia on FB is up (one of our recent videos is at 170k shares, and growing), it’s just distributed across a narrower spectrum of posts.

“FB traffic has gone up for us. Our original video content is performing really well, and link posts are getting more action too; one thing the FB changes seem to have done is give more airtime to our link posts, rather than favouring what seemed to be video above all else. Of course it’s not all about the platform, premium editorial projects of a high quality show that it’s still great content that drives growth and engagement.”

“[Our strategy] is always in constant flux. We’re constantly testing new strategies and adapting to the changing environment, and that’s what makes the job fun. If we can continue to find ways to push for that 1-2% extra in terms of best practice we’ll keep growing and engaging alongside any platform movements.

“The biggest learning is you can’t control everything, you can’t rest on your laurels, and the only constant is change. Don’t be married to ideas or strategies, keep trying new things. We’re always working really closely with our editorial, video teams to make sure they are across the platform’s current priorities, and our strategies, and are helping shape content as it’s created, packaged and shared on FB.”

Alison Rice, group publisher, Popsugar, Who What Wear, Byrdie, My Domaine Australia

Alison Rice, group publisher, Popsugar, Who What Wear, Byrdie, My Domaine Australia

“We are 100% Instant Articles on POPSUGAR Australia and given we made that decision before the algorithm change, we’ve not taken a dramatic hit to our website audience. We worked hard a couple of years ago to diversify our referral base and I’d like to think we’re seeing the benefit of that now.

“Beyond that, I am not super interested in dissecting referrals from platforms month on month. It is a waste of time. If we’ve got a stable, loyal audience visiting .com.au and we’re being additive and original out on platforms – sparking discussion, highlighting fresh perspectives, delivering our audience content they want to share because it says something about how they see themselves in the world – then in my view we’re succeeding.

“We also continue to see success from our Groups. What I have found disappointing is publishers using Groups to push links to the website which I think – right now as we test and learn – is the wrong way forward. The Group is community and discussion. Not everything we do needs to drive traffic to the website. It isn’t how people use platforms. I think Groups have a real shot at being these deep and rich brand experiences if we let them.”

Annabel Hodges, audience development director, Bauer Media

Annabel Hodges, audience development director, Bauer Media

“The threat of the overdependence on the Facebook News Feed had long been hinted at, so Bauer’s strategy to diversify our traffic sources was already well established prior to the official announcement.

“Organic traffic has now overtaken social as our main traffic source. Like any other publisher, investing more time in other social platforms is now part of our day-to-day – Instagram and Pinterest for example hold huge potential and we are already seeing significant increase in referral and engagement from these channels.

“Although we’ve seen Facebook traffic referral drop by up to 40% in some cases, since the start of the year, our overall traffic has continued to grow with our diversification of social platforms, referral touchpoints and organic traffic proving a success.”

Julian Delany, managing director of News Corp’s NewsDNA

Julian Delany, managing director of News Corp’s NewsDNA

“The Facebook algorithm adjustment changed the way we approach content creation for our social audience as it did for many publishers across the globe. As with any off-platform publishing we’re acutely aware of what works and what doesn’t and remain nimble where required to pivot on what consumers demand.”

Tim Duggan, publisher at Junkee Media

Tim Duggan, publisher of Junkee Media 

 

“The Facebook algorithm changes all the time, so we’re pretty used to riding the waves of it over the years. Overall total reach for Junkee Media pages has remained fairly consistent since the latest changes were announced a few months ago, despite all the talk at the time. Our audience is pretty engaged with our content and that hasn’t changed. The biggest thing we’ve noticed is the absence of “super-viral” stories that would cause massive spikes in reach seems to have levelled out a bit.

“Over the past few months our engaged Facebook user rates has increased overall, with a 35% increase to our engaged user rate in Q1, and some of our pages even seeing over double the engagement rate year on year.

“We have seen a 72% increase in Facebook traffic year on year from February to April this year compared to last year, and a 33% increase in page views from Facebook referrals from Q4 to Q1.

“However whilst overall referral traffic from Facebook mightn’t have changed much in the past 3 months, the overall longer term trend if you stretch it out over a few years has been less organic reach. This contrasts for us with referral traffic from organic Google searches, which has is up over 50% over the past 12 months.”

“[In terms of social media strategy], we are really focusing on quality over quantity at the moment. We would rather produce less pieces of content and have them travel further, which fits in with our wider content strategy of “add to the conversation, not just the noise.

“This has been one of our guiding principles for years, and it seems as though the algorithm changes support this. We’re not huge fans of churning out content just for the sake of it.

“We’re also continuing to focus on the audience interaction in our comments. Our audience is already very engaged with what we post on Facebook, so we just are continuing to interact with them to ensure that continues and the comment threads are active.”

Rich Fogarty, CEO of Concrete Playground

Richard Fogarty, CEO of Concrete Playground

“We’ve seen some significant increases in social reach this year, especially for location- and time-specific content, and stories that spark social conversations between friends. Our organic reach is up 48% for the first 18 weeks of 2018 compared to the last 18 weeks of 2017.

“We saw a fairly solid bump in traffic in January and we’ve maintained those numbers since. Our CTR is up 35% this year. Looking at Nielsen Market Intelligence, the market is down roughly 15% on the last few months of 2017, so we’re very happy to be seeing growth within that broader market context.

“We stay quite consistent with our strategy. We’re focused on building our owned assets and audiences. If you chop and change your content or social strategy too much — chasing inflated Facebook Video or Instant Articles reach for example — I think your readers can sense that, and it does nothing for the digital publishing industry in a broader sense. Every day I read about another US publisher who doubled down on the ‘pivot to video’ going out of business. You walk a perilous path when you’re beholden to the whims of one single platform or referral channel. Diversification of audience acquisition is more important than ever.

“[We’ve learned] Facebook likes publishers with localised audiences and social-friendly content, at the moment anyhow.”

Clive Dickens, chief digital officer, Seven West Media

 

Clive DIckens_M360 2018

Clive Dickens, Seven’s head of digital

“There is a clear delineation of engagement between static social media content and video social media content. The algorithm changes, so far, have had a modest impact on loss of reach or engagement for native social video content. This means as a company, we have been less affected as we produce and share so much social video, which in turn generates over 200m social video views a month.

“The bigger question is what types of digital publishers are affected. It appears the big seven publishers are not seeing a material reduction in social engagement. Smaller digital publishers who were after cheap or free global reach and under invested in things like mobile native apps and search engine optimisation appear to have been affected more.

“Facebook and Social Media still a very important marketplace but its best role is drive awareness and trial. In our experience it is more important to focus on loyal and deeply engaged users to drive habit from their engagement. You can’t build an audience or brand on reach alone.”

 

Kaye Fallick, publisher at YourLifeChoices

Kaye Fallick, Publisher of YourLife Choices

“Our website traffic comes from search and it comes from our daily e-newsletters. Our Facebook audience is around the 30,000 mark, our e-news subscribers are around 250,000. We’ve always considered a Facebook session nice to have, but not essential to our business.

“What we have seen in the Facebook sessions a 30,000 number is now down since the change to 24,500, which is about a 16 percent decrease in sessions from Facebook.”

“Engagement via email and search and people coming directly to the site. That is where we play and we’re showing 10 percent year on year increases there and that to that for us, that is the future of publishing.

“We have always measured along the way the value of a Facebook visitor to our site and the value of someone who comes in through e-news and the value of someone who comes in through search or someone who comes in directly and the last three for us are super high value and the Facebook visitor to our site is not a high value visitor. They come and they go.

“It doesn’t build our business it’s not commercially interesting. So we’ve always considered Facebook something we had to have a presence but it wasn’t something that we felt by building Facebook we would gain value and honestly 15 years ago, 10 years ago someone said to me Don’t put your energy into building Mark Zuckerberg’s business.

“You actually have to do the hard yards on your own side. And for us that ultimately what we do and what we try to do and it is hard work, but it’s a much sturdier business and it has allowed us over time to maintain partnerships with advertisers year in and year out.”

Peter Holder, managing director of Daily Mail Australia

Peter Holder, Daily Mail Australia’s managing director

“We did see a dip in reach for the native videos we have been posting to Facebook. Was it significant? Yes, but not massive for it to be a major concern. Reach means nothing if you don’t get the click-throughs to the site – and we certainly get the click-throughs.”

“Some months are bigger than others. Peaks and troughs have as much to do with seasonality factors – school and public holidays, for example – and the news cycle on any given week.

“It may seem like a statement of the bleeding obvious but our strategy has always been to post articles that are shareable. Since the algorithm change, but not entirely because of it, we have improved how we sell our stories on Facebook. And while we’ve never been guilty of it, we certainly took on board the advice Facebook offered in terms of not falling into the trap of Engagement Bait – prompting users to click the Like button or provide answers to Yes or No type questions would not perform well under the algorithm. Our posts tend to encourage real comments and therefore engagement.

“[We’ve since learned] that Facebook is always going to have a degree of unknown quantity about it.”

Rebecca Wilson, CEO of Starts at 60

Rebecca Wilson, CEO of Starts at 60

“We noticed significant negative changes to the algorithm were being tested or rolled out in Australia right back in October 2017.  We started actively changing our strategies in November, testing and learning, and building our audience off-Facebook.

“Then when initially announced in January we saw some weird spikes in engagement on some types of content and declines on other types…
This caused us to shift strategy.

“Some types of content were penalised altogether so we’ve ceased them, and others were clearly being shared to more of our community than ever before – a wonderful surprise. We’ve chosen to favour the content on Facebook that our Facebook users love and Facebook keenly gives reach to.

“Other types of content we serve in different places like groups dedicated to more specialist audiences like book-lovers and crafters and via email. When the algorithm changes were announced in January we believe it was just confirming actions that had already started taking place prior for us.”

“Our engagement has increased extraordinarily in recent months – a pleasant and unexpected surprise.  I guess you would expect this from a highly social audience that has a huge volume of  ‘meaningful social interactions’.  It is not uncommon for us to enjoy 10,000-15,000+ meaningful engagements a day on our main AU wall on link posts alone.

“Facebook definitely seems to serve engaged content to the people who engage with it regularly.  It was an obvious uplift for us once we ironed out the kinks.

“Early in the changes we saw declines in click through, but working through and being very selective on the content we distribute and the way we use Facebook now sees our click through traffic back at highs of early 2017, with stable flows. We have diversified our traffic sources and distribution though.

“We have [adjusted our social media strategy].  We decreased quantity of content significantly, and focussed on quality, authentic community and audience connection.  Meaningful social interactions were always important to us, now they’re crucial.

“In January we created a selection of public and private Facebook Groups which have provided an amazing test and learn environments for all of our team who are getting closer to the community every day through the interactions of different kinds going on in groups that can no longer be done on a wall.

“We also focussed on moving our strategy away from Facebook, moving to focus on email, Google, and playing with other platforms like Apple News and Instagram.  As a result, our google traffic is firing well and our main email enjoys 43%+ click to open rates twice daily now with 120,000+ subs! And more recently, we’ve launched the Startsat60.club a member organisation for digital-savvy over-60s and that’s growing fast.  And we turned off Facebook Instant Articles.  Now, just 5 months after we  started the project to shift our activity off Facebook only 55% of our daily traffic is sourcing from Facebook, a huge shift for us yet we’re at close to all-time network traffic highs in Australia.

“Nothing ever stays the same in digital… but I think we all knew that. We still love Facebook but we’re busy building our value for our community on our own network and working with true partners to grow a returning audience that has never been more engaged.”

What does CrowdTangle show?

CrowdTangle is an online social monitoring platform, which Facebook bought in 2016.

In order to understand how the numbers stack up, the last six months of Facebook interactions, video views, post counts and page likes were analysed.

The platform can only show up to ten publishers at a time, so they have been divided by categories such as trade, lifestyle, news and youth.

Areas measured include interactions – including reactions, comments and shares, video views, post count and page likes.

For a page like Seven’s Better Homes & Gardens, the changes do not appear to have severely affected engagement. In November 2017, three months before the announcement, the page reported 867,892 interactions per month. It remains the leading publisher despite changes, according to the graph below.

Source: CrowdTangle. Image taken on May 16. [Click to enlarge]

It’s the same for Nine’s 9Honey. In November, 9Honey’s interactions were at 29,332 and in April, this number was 23,218.

But for a publisher like Mamamia – which has previously flagged with Mumbrella the impact of Facebook’s algorithm – interactions have significantly reduced. Mamamia declined to comment for this article outside of its initial commentary from January.

In April interactions were at 147,785, whilst in November interactions were at 607,216.

It’s a similar story for Bauer Media’s Now To Love, with 4,304 interactions in April compared to 20,081 in November last year.

For the news publishers, News Corp’s news.com.au, Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph have also seen declines.

Source: CrowdTangle. Image taken on May 16. [Click to enlarge]

Fairfax Media’s The Age and Sydney Morning Herald had interactions in April of 517,683 and 158,748.

This was compared to interactions of 738,258 and 305,317 respectively.

Daily Mail Australia has also seen a dip, from 1.382m to 860,674.

Among the youth publishers, Vice Australia has seen an increase in interactions in the last six months.

Source: CrowdTangle. Image taken on May 16. [Click to enlarge]

BuzzFeed Australia has taken a hit down from 1.880m interactions in November to 672,054.

Pedestrian TV’s interactions fell from 589,695 in the same period to 203, 749. Meanwhile Punkee, which has a large portion of video content on Facebook had just 63,128 interactions, down from November’s 151,552.

Meanwhile, Mumbrella has seen a decline in interactions since November last year. Our interactions went from 1,555 monthly to 909 in April.

Source: CrowdTangle. Image taken on May 16. [Click to enlarge]

So where does this leave us?

Despite a decline in audience reach, publishers are, for the most part, optimistic. The changes have meant the audience is more engaged, and therefore of more value overall.

What publishers will need to do now is closely look at the data they are fed, through Facebook Insights, CrowdTangle and other players, to work out which content is resonating with consumers.

But total dependence or reliance on Facebook can no longer be the focus. And for those new players entering the market, such as Tendaily and Goat, attracting mass audiences will become more difficult organically.

When Mumbrella spoke to Facebook, Andrew Hunter, head of news partnerships, said the response from publishers following the changes had been varied.

Hunter says the response has been varied

“Most publishers understand their audiences on Facebook and most seem to have adapted quite well. Having a tool like CrowdTangle helps newsrooms understand the way the Facebook community is responding to stories,” he tells Mumbrella.

“We’ve added some features such as filtering by engagement type that really allows newsrooms to isolate the types of stories that are generating conversation and sharing.”

In part, Hunter attributes decline to the change in the measurement’s definition, which occurred at the same time as the algorithm change.

“That would account for some of it. We were expecting a reach drop in aggregate for public page content after the January changes that prioritised friends and family engagement. Interestingly, some publishers are telling us that reach has decreased, but Facebook is actually driving more traffic to their sites.”

However he says those publishers with video were not being prioritised over those with ‘static’ content: “We see meaningful interactions across lots of different content and partner types – videos from news publishers that spark meaningful conversations between people on important issues, video series that can create tight-knit communities, live videos that can generate more interactions and comments between friends and family, and videos from creators with passionate and loyal fan bases.”

In terms of changes to strategy, Hunter said he’s already seeing some newsrooms posting less but making more of an effort with story selection and pitching. Others, he explained, are focusing on local news.

“In the end, strong news brands publishing interesting, timely and important stories relevant to their audiences will thrive on Facebook,” he said.

“A large effort is being made to improve the quality of news on Facebook. Changes we made late last year have helped drastically reduce clickbait and engagement bait as well as misinformation and spam.

“While we’re aggressively going after the bad, we’re just as determined to elevate the good. We’re focused on increasing the amount of local news and publishers are telling us that local stories are finding a good audience. There’s a lot more work to do but early signs are promising.”

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