Vox's Jim Bankoff on how media companies can avoid getting killed by Facebook's algorithms
What's the one weird tip to avoid getting killed by Facebook's algorithms?
Don't write headlines like that.
Earlier this week, there was a lot of speculation that Upworthy's traffic tanked in December because Facebook tweaked its News Feed algorithm. Indeed, those purveyors of "You-Won't-Believe-What-Happened-Next" click bait at Upworthy saw a 46 percent decline in page views since Facebook began to prioritize what it calls "high quality content." (Upworthy's not exactly the Paris Review.)
There are plenty of reasons why Upworthy's traffic may have tanked that have nothing to do with Facebook. (Slate's Will Oremus outlines them here). That said, the changes Facebook makes to its News Feed algorithm do have an impact on what stories and publications get the most play on Facebook. Referrals to media sites from Facebook rose 170 percent between September 2012 and September 2013. Business Insider president Julie Hansen told Digiday, "Our content has always done well on social networks, but it seems clear that recent Facebook changes are amplifying that fact."
But if Facebook giveth, it also taketh away, just like Google did when it tweaked its algorithm in 2011 to kill off content farms. So how can modern media companies avoid being crushed by the whims of tech companies?
According to Jim Bankoff, chairman and CEO of Vox Media, the best strategy is to keep your head down and produce quality stuff. "We try to keep things simple," he said. "You produce great content and it's in [Facebook's] best interests to embrace it."
This runs counter to the old school ideas of "hacking" growth by focusing heavily on search engine optimization or social optimization, ideas that drove the growth of media companies like Bleacher Report and Upworthy. If ever there were a company that constantly evolves it's Facebook, tweaking its algorithm to "better serve" its users and advertisers. What works today may not work tomorrow.
Of course, Bankoff also thinks about how to distribute content over the social media airwaves, which is secondary to the content. "We partner with [Facebook] and Twitter and think about the right way to grow our traffic. But it starts with the quality of the experience, and from there we think about distribution."
While many of the last wave of successful content companies came armed with clickable headline templates and tailored their stories thusly, Vox does the reverse. It's also turned that strategy into real profits. For the sake of readers (and the journalists who produce these stories), hopefully this becomes a new, more lasting normal for media companies.
[Photo by Hallie Bateman]