As publishers know all too well, the stories that perform best on Facebook tend to be listicles, quizzes, and irresistibly clickable headlines that often lead to stories with little substance.
This has been observed by many anecdotally, but it also bears out in data recently published that shows the stories Facebook fed the most traffic to, for a number of publishers, were rarely hard news or analysis. No wonder reporters were miffed when Facebook’s Product Director called out news organizations for failing journalism, when Facebook itself has played a huge role in the dumbing-down of news.
Today, however, Facebook announced a tweak to its News Feed algorithm designed to reduce the amount of clickbait users see in their News Feeds. Going forward, Facebook will measure the amount of time a user spends on a story after clicking on it and prioritize posts that attract the most reader attention. So for example, a post that reads, “You’ll NEVER believe who Katy Perry had on her arm at the VMAs,” which users only click on to find the answer before navigating away, will show up less often in News Feeds.
“When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through,” writes two Facebook analysts in a blog post.
Not only is the switch good for readers, it’s good for publishers who want to produce more substantial reporting and analysis, and who will now feel less pressure to write quick, disposable content that loses its flavor faster that a piece of Bazooka gum. It’s also refreshing to see Facebook put its money where it’s mouth is — if it’s going to attack news organizations for failing journalism, it should at least try to be part of the solution.
But perhaps the most notable thing about the change is that it’s good for the people paying so many of our salaries: Advertisers. As Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote in a widely-read article last March, 55 percent of readers spend less than fifteen seconds on a page after clicking. That’s hardly much time for advertisers to make an impression. Furthermore, the Chartbeat team found no correlation between the number of times a story is shared and the time readers spend on it. Therefore time-spent is a much better metric for advertisers to consider than either clicks or social shares. And now by prioritizing this content on Facebook, this gives the kinds of meaningful stories that journalists want to write and advertisers (should) want to run ads against, more visibility than ever.
Of course, just because news organizations want readers to spend a lot of time on their site, and may craft stories accordingly, that doesn’t mean they will. Sometimes readers abandon stories because the content offers little substance, but other times it’s because they don’t want to read a 1000+ word piece on a serious or complicated issue. You could make a comparison to fitness trackers like the Fitbit — sure, they make exercise and healthy eating easier than ever, but if users aren’t already committed to getting in shape, not even the most sophisticated wearable device will convince them to go on runs and eat their vegetables. Sadly, I expect the same is true of eating our cultural vegetables.
Nevertheless, by removing at least one incentive to publish terrible content (or at the very least, the incentive to write terrible headlines), Facebook has taken a small step toward building a better social web that rewards quality, not clickability. The company will also look like less of a hypocrite next time one of its executives attacks news organizations for ruining journalism.
Earlier this month, I wrote that if Twitter adopts a Facebook-style algorithm that prioritizes some posts over others, news-hungry users may not see as much content related to serious stories, like the Ferguson, MO shooting. But as Facebook’s latest tweak shows, algorithms can be used for good, not just evil.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]