Facebook’s algorithm has been a thing of controversy over the last few months, variously blamed for all sorts, from the UK’s Brexit mob-mentality to a kind of intellectual reductionism that comes as a result of only seeing what your friends and your favourite publishers share. The platform itself claims not to be in the editing business, and yet there can be few editors on this planet that can claim the level of influence that this clandestine piece of code boasts.
In the past, we’ve been very cynical about the way in which the Facebook algorithm seems to accelerate the race to the bottom, seemingly valuing clicks over attention. However, a small trend in some of the last few changes suggest that they may be closer to the Attention Movement than we had originally thought.
This week’s announcement concerning penalties over the use of clickbait follows a similarly clickbait-concerned note published two years ago (August 2014). Khalid El-Arini and Joyce Tang launched the company’s original tirade against clickbait, outlining new ways in which the algorithm identifies the problem.
“One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook,” they wrote. “If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted.” This was music to our ears here at Content Insights, where we’re in what seems like a nonstop battle against those that value the click, or the page view, as anything other than an indicator of a browser having been opened. We found ourselves in agreement with Facebook: if nobody actually reads the article they’ve clicked on, what value is there in that click? More to the point, if that’s how you’re structuring a price for your advertising, then more fool you.
“If nobody actually reads the article they’ve clicked on, what value is there in that click?”
So you can imagine how delighted we were to read yesterday’s announcement from Alex Peysakhovic and Kristin Hendrix. “We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles,” they explained. “These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer… To address this feedback from our community, we’re making an update to News Feed ranking to further reduce clickbait headlines in the coming weeks.”
The announcement indicated that tens of thousands of headlines had been analysed, looking for two significant factors as well as commonly-used clickbait phrases. If your headlines deliberately withhold information (“You’ll never guess who tripped and fell on the red carpet…”) or wantonly mislead the reader (“Apples are actually bad for you?!”) then you’re likely to see less referral traffic from Facebook over the coming weeks. Combine that with the change from two years previously and you can see that Facebook is clearly favouring well-written, less egregious content that people want to spend time with.
“When all’s said and done, it’s Zuckerberg’s world now. We just borrow it.”
All of this is great news for anyone who curses the increasing presence of clickbait headlines in traditional news media brands, and longs for a return to something less frantic and panicky. Whether it helps Facebook in its claims not to be in the editing business, however, is another thing entirely. While we praise anyone taking up arms in the war against clickbait, we have to wonder: has Facebook just taken control of the style guide for any publication hoping to reach its audience? When all’s said and done, it’s Zuckerberg’s world now. We just borrow it.