Boom or Bust with Facebook: Why the Social Giant's Recent Algorithm Changes Mean Everything (and Nothing) to Enthusiast Publishers

By Rondon, Michael | Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Boom or Bust with Facebook: Why the Social Giant's Recent Algorithm Changes Mean Everything (and Nothing) to Enthusiast Publishers


Rondon, Michael, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management


Science magazine Discover had 69,000 Facebook likes at the beginning of 2013. Growing steadily, that audience had doubled by September. Then in October, it doubled again. November? Again. By January, they'd hit the 1 million mark and, as of March 1, stood just shy of 2 million Facebook likes--a 1,300-percent increase in five months.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? THEY'RE NOT REALLY SURE.

Facebook tends to guard the details of its News Feed algorithm, only hinting at the types of content it's looking to promote. In early December, the site announced that it was changing its formula to include more "high quality articles" though.

The tweaks appeared to aim squarely at viral meme sites. Headlines like Upworthy's "It Would Be Hard For Me To Believe People Actually Said This Stuff ... Except I've Heard It Myself" that had played well, presumably wouldn't be as effective.

There have been questions around how the algorithm change has actually impacted referral traffic to those sites--for many, visits declined in the early part of the year, but only time will tell whether that's been a function of Facebook's tweaks or a natural valley in a longer cycle; other sites have seen traffic go up.

Enthusiast publishers like Discover produce a much different type of content though. While a lot of it is image-centric and sharable--think science, epicurean and outdoors magazines--it's also timely, targeted, newsy and often features original reporting. It's exactly what Facebook says it wants to promote ("People prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests," Facebook's announcement reads.)

"If what's being elevated is not just sharable content--like the BuzzFeeds and Upworthys, and what we do sometimes too--but you'll also be bumped up for news value, then that's great for us," says Lisa Raffensperger, an associate editor for Discover who manages the site's social presence.

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Discover's rapid growth actually started before the Facebook algorithm adjustment however and, Raffensperger says, happened without any conscious changes to the editorial or social media strategy. Its like-count also grew much faster than referral traffic back to the site.

They've since adjusted how they're using the platform though, implementing best practices like re-posting popular items, creating weekly roundups and posting on weekends, which has boosted traffic. DiscoverMagazine. com now gets roughly 20 percent of its 1.5 million monthly unique visitors from Facebook, up from 7 percent in September.

Still, the surge is largely a mystery for them. Raffensperger points to the site's most successful Facebook story, "Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes," which got more than 86,000 likes and was published in June--way before the expansion of Discover's audience.

"That was one of the really interesting spikes we've seen in organic reach," she says. "It wasn't anything like Upworthy in style at all. …

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