Facebook Algorithm Change Hurting News Sites’ Organic Reach

December 17, 2013

Monday afternoon brought an unpleasant surprise to the CBS Sacramento Facebook page. News stories that were posted to the Facebook page weren’t gaining any traction.

We’ve dipped our toes into advertising on Facebook, but for the most part we are dependent on Organic Reach—basically how a post would show up in people’s News Feeds based on shares, likes and comments.

At one point on Monday, our numbers dropped significantly. I’m not going to share exact numbers, but percentages instead. Posts made during that time had a total reach approximately 10 to 25 percent of what similar posts were getting earlier in the day.

Again, that’s not a 10 to 25 percent drop, that’s 10 to 25 percent, period.

Google is one of our top referrers for our traffic, but Facebook also plays a significant role in how much traffic our site gets. Losing 75 to 90 percent of our reach in one day is a severe gut check in terms of the number of people coming to our site.

After some research, I came across a post from Facebook’s newsroom ironically titled “News Feed FYI: Helping You Find More News to Talk About.” It explained how Facebook was going to make things more relevant and offer more high-quality content.

People use Facebook to share and connect, including staying current on the latest news, whether it’s about their favorite celebrity or what’s happening in the world. We’ve noticed that people enjoy seeing articles on Facebook, and so we’re now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from News Feed on mobile. What this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile).

This post sounds like fantastically good news for our Facebook page. We are dedicated to bringing the latest news to the region, from Sacramento to Stockton to Vacaville to the Sierra. We have a strict policy that posts on our Facebook page should have meaning and relate to what we’ve posted on our site. No memes, no Reddit reposts, just the news.

And that’s something Facebook is interested in as well, quoting the post:

Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.

Again, this should be fantastic news for our Facebook page. What we’re providing is exactly the kind of content they want to promote.

And CBS Sacramento is not alone. I reached out on Twitter to see if anyone else had been affected. Sacramento Bee Interactivity Editor Nathaniel Miller replied, saying he was seeing “historically low” organic reach numbers.

He also pointed out an interesting fact: The Bee’s Facebook page had some of its best engagement last week when the change in the algorithm took place. A check back at our posts in the previous week show the same trend, with some posts seeing 200-300 percent higher reach than average.

Given the complexities involved in adjusting Facebook algorithms, things like this are bound to happen from time to time. It would appear their change promoted news stories a little too heavily last week. A change was made Monday afternoon that dialed that back, but to a degree that caused the opposite of what Facebook originally intended.

And it appears whatever bit got flipped the wrong way is causing a bizarre reach delay. Earlier I mentioned Monday’s posts getting 10 to 25 percent of their normal traffic. A check of those same stories show the reach improving 24 hours later to about 60-75 percent of normal—still not back to normal, but it’s a start.

The problem is, if this latest change to Facebook’s algorithm is focused on current events and relevant news stories, it’s doing a terrible job. Stories posted to our News Feed on Tuesday are still garnering the anemic numbers as stories posted on Monday. While seeing the bump in reach throughout the day is encouraging, there’s a reason they’re called “current events.” Plopping them into someone’s feed 24 hours later strips the immediacy and relevance of the story, leaving readers and viewers with stale news about events one could hardly call “current.”

This also is a critical reminder for website managers not to rely on one source for their traffic. We’ve been lucky that through solid SEO practices and other channels for sharing stories, our website traffic hasn’t dropped as much as our Facebook traffic.

Here’s hoping this issue is remedied quickly. I’d have sent all this to Facebook in an email, but frankly their customer support options are terrible. A company designed around reaching out and connecting should have a better way for customers to connect to them.