Victim of the newsfeed: is Facebook really suppressing unpaid posts?

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It sounds like a horror story dreamed up by a social media manager: Facebook seems to be showing fewer of your posts in the newsfeeds of your fans and followers fans than before, making your interaction levels drop and pushing you to consider putting down the cash to promote your post. But are they really?

Facebook denied the allegations, but there is no getting around the fact that there is something up with your newsfeed — even if you’re subscribed to a user’s updates, there is no guarantee you’ll actually see them, as the New York Times’ Nick Bilton discovered. Bilton took to his column this weekend to add his voice to the discussion about the sliding number of Facebook interactions on any given post… but the murky ways Facebook sorts its news feed are still just as unclear.

Bilton wrote that although the number of people who have subscribed to his updates has increased dramatically (from 25 000 to 400 000 subscribers), he’s seeing fewer likes and shares on his posts than he was months ago. Puzzled, he coughed up US$7 and paid to promote a post — and saw a thousand percent increase in interactions. He theorises that Facebook may not just be giving preference to promoted posts in newsfeeds around the world, but also that it might be suppressing posts that aren’t paid for.

Facebook says that Bilton may just be a victim of the newsfeed’s edge rank algorithm, which picks which posts appear. Speaking to the Times, product manager for newsfeed, Will Cathcart, said that “the two aren’t related; we don’t have an incentive to reduce the distribution that you send to your followers so that we can show you more ads.” He did however say that “over time, we’ve shipped a number of changes to our algorithm that may cause content to go up or down.”

Of course, there are a number of factors that could have influenced how many of Bilton’s posts pop up in his subscribers’ feeds, from spam culls to the size of like icons on mobile apps. As former YouTube project manager Hunter Walk points out, the fact is that the newsfeed may just be getting too crowded. With apps, promoted posts, friends’ updates, and brand posts (among other things) clogging up users’ newsfeeds, there may simply be too much noise to spot a single post. Even if it’s not user fatigue, and Facebook’s billion-strong user base are still happily clicking ‘like’ and ‘share’ just as often as before, because there are more posts, it’s less likely that they’ll spot and engage with that specific update.

It all goes downhill from there: Facebook’s algorithm looks at engagement rates when choosing where to stick your post. If it’s gathered a smattering of likes early on, it’s more likely to slot in higher up in users’ newsfeeds. If it hasn’t, it becomes another case study Facebook can use to argue why it is important to post interesting, engaging content.

As TechCrunch notes, Facebook is walking a fine line between showing the posts that will make it reach its advertisers’ campaign goals and trying not to spam ordinary users. “Facebook risks alienating users if the feed’s meritocracy is poisoned with paid marketing and users feel like they’re not seeing what they want,” says writer Josh Constine.

If waiting for Facebook to tweak its algorithm isn’t an option, users may consider switching to a rival: Twitter. The microblogging service’s feed also features promoted posts, but the rest of the updates are time-based. While Facebook’s goal is to remain engaging by showing users the information that is most relevant to them, the parts it’s missing out may become an increasing problem for smaller brands and companies who can’t afford to buy a promoted post.

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