How to Get Ahead on Facebook without Really Trying

Article excerpt

Byline: Megan McArdle

There's no mystery to how to make the social-networking site work for you. You don't need a lot of friends. You just need a lot of cash.

Not long ago, I decided that it was time to finally get serious about my social-media presence. No, please don't titter. While my fellow journalists had been building large followings on Facebook, I'd kept my page locked down, limited to people that I at least sort of knew IRL. Frankly, it was a bit of self-preservation: more than once I've inadvertently informed the 13,000 followers of my public Twitter account that I'd be somewhere for a drink around 6:30 if they'd like to stop by.

But with more than a third of traffic to many media sites coming through social media, peers solemnly assured me that as long as I didn't have a public Facebook persona, I was not living up to my traffic potential.

Enter Facebook Pages, designed to be the outward face of a business or public figure. It's sort of a cross between a Web page and a Facebook account: you put up a cover image and a little information about yourself, and then post periodic updates--daily specials, tips for using your product, or just pictures of the staff acting silly. If users like your page, your updates will show up in their newsfeed, along with all the news from friends and family.

Facebook Pages have proven surprisingly popular with users, in part because users' liking the pages is a way of affiliating themselves with a person or brand they think is cool. And for businesses, the advantage is obvious. It might cost a few bucks in promotions to acquire a new follower--Hampton Inn offered a chance to win a free weekend getaway, while Pizza Hut gave away free P'Zones--but once followers are hooked, businesses can blitz them with messages at no extra cost. If those friends like the message, then their friends will see it, and so on, ad infinitum.

So I dug up a head shot and within minutes, I'd created my own Facebook Page. Whereupon Facebook immediately asked me if I wouldn't like to promote it. Not, of course, by genially informing a few close friends that I now had a public page; Facebook was inviting me to buy an ad.

This is the crux of the most recent (but certainly not the last) controversy over Facebook's advertising services, as the company seeks more and better ways to monetize its services. As the company's algorithms have made it harder for some page owners to reach their audience, many have cried foul, most recently New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton, who complained, "It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for." His lament is familiar: every round of complaints unleashes a complementary bout of commentator hand-wringing over the Internet middlemen who are controlling how we interact with the Internet. And yet, what did we expect? We wanted those middlemen to help us survive the onrushing torrents of information on the Web--to sort and search and serve it up in carefully customized chunks. Those of us in the content business wanted them to give us new ways to reach our audience. Did we really think that they were going to keep doing it all for free?

The latest controversy goes back to last fall, when Facebook made some substantial changes to its "EdgeRank" algorithm, the little virtual robot that assembles your newsfeed. Business content was suddenly a lot less likely to show up in a user's newsfeed unless they had "engaged" with the page--liking, sharing, or commenting on its content. Facebook said the change was a response to user complaints about corporate spam. But around the same time, the company also introduced a new product, the "Suggested Post," that allowed businesses to inject their content directly into a user's newsfeed--thus helping said user to "engage."

Critics went wild: if Facebook was so worried about protecting users from spam, they said, how come they were letting companies pay to target specific viewers? …