Users Come First

A few months ago, Facebook announced that it would provide higher priority to “news articles” or “articles of higher content”. They also decreased the number of people a Facebook Page would have the ability to reach, effectively forcing Facebook Page owners “pay-to-play” — pay Facebook to have more of their own fans see their content.

While some argue that Facebook made this subtle but significant change to increase it’s short-term bottom line, squeezing a few extra dollars out of Facebook Page owners, Facebook made a much longer bet on the type of information people are willing to see in their News Feeds. Over the past year, content providers such as UpWorthy, Buzzfeed, BusinessInsider, and ViralNova have perfected the art of shareable information. This information is not designed for consumption. It has been created for people to share on Facebook and Twitter. Sharing boosts the distribution of content and makes it more likely for people to leave a social network to a website. The website owner, of course, earns revenue from display ads, video ads, and potentially native ads.

Facebook noticed. The algorithm change punishes “low-quality” websites and makes it less likely that users will see information shared from them. Facebook made this change for one main reason — time spent on Facebook, not to extract additional advertising dollars from page owners, though that may be a side benefit. The social network rarely makes changes that benefit its advertisers over its users. In its ten-year history, Facebook has repeatedly argued that it prioritizes the needs of its users before the needs of its advertisers. A strong user base, of course, strengthens the value of the advertising platform. During the surge of viral, click-bait, style headlines in the Newsfeed, Facebook must have noticed that people were leaving the site or app. Not necessarily to view the content but because they found the content in their newsfeed irrelevant. Facebook, like Twitter and Google, have little problem directing their users to other content around the Internet. As long as they control the entrance to other content, the company can monetize.

There is another, more grandiose reason, Facebook made this change. Facebook wants to control the information discovery and communications layer of the Internet. Information discovery not posed in the form of a question — Google search — but supplied by the people we know. News articles now receive much higher priority in the newsfeed. Facebook Paper emulates Flipboard and other popular news-aggregator type applications to send people to content they might find interesting. Facebook cares less and less about what content you consume outside of its applications. It only wants you to begin there. Changing the newsfeed algorithm to produce fewer UpWorthy headlines fits what Facebook is trying to accomplish.

Facebook alienated major brands when it announced the newsfeed change. Facebook page posts now reach 16% of a page’s total fans on average. It may also destroy ViralNova, UpWorthy, Business Insider, and other content sites that rely on social sharing. It is important to note that Google has made this decision several times in the past and destroyed many lucrative businesses built around gaming search engine optimization. Despite the outrage, Facebook will not change the algorithm to surface content that people are not interested in. Unless Facebook misses its earning estimates for a quarter or two, it will not pressure its users to either see more advertising or view more content from websites they do not want.

So, what do you think ?