It’s an understatement to say that Facebook ruffled a few feathers last week by trialling a separation of publisher content from the usual stream of cat pictures and personal diatribes from "friends" and family, albeit only in some regions of the world.
We’ve reached a point where the butterfly effect of Facebook twitching its little finger sends publishers crashing to the ground. Or at least that’s what some of them are experiencing.
As a company, Facebook has a right to test and prioritise features, especially if new features will help to declutter the newsfeed. Not only this, but the new Explore feed will help tackle the much-criticised filter bubble by exposing users to news opinions they may disagree with, new publishers, and something to liven up those feeds that can feel a little tired sometimes.
Sounds great, right?
As is often the case when a large incumbent technology alters its product, for example when Google worked to reduce SEO gaming, the impact can be far-reaching. It’s unavoidable.
In this instance, it would be the publishers who built a reliance on organic "likes" and comments to boost the reach algorithm, that would suffer. Specifically, if the trial were to become real, users would only see posts from other users alongside sponsored content in their actual newsfeed, removing the ability to engineer reach.
This experiment has sent these publishers into a state of panic and the fact that this caused one publisher in Slovakia to lose 66% of its traffic overnight only amplifies the inherent fragility of Facebook’s ecosystem for content owners.
This trial wasn’t handled particularly well by Facebook and there would have no doubt been plenty of frantic calls from publisher partners demanding answers. Although Facebook has stated that this isn’t an attempt to increase impact on sponsored content, the wording of the post – meant to reassure the industry – has not eased publishers’ nerves, with Facebook only committing to no ‘current’ plans to roll out this experiment further, as opposed to a blanket statement of their future intentions.
Overreliance on organic traffic from Facebook is why publishers worldwide are seeing stars; and lest we forget, Facebook is a consumer-first entity – so if it goes well for them with their users, Facebook will have no qualms in applying these measures elsewhere.
Therefore, publishers need to diversify now and ensure they are more evenly spread across social channels, selecting better partners for content whilst optimising readers’ online experience.
While this play from Facebook has rattled publishers, it’s also clear that they won’t be rolling it out wider anytime soon. I suggest we all start thinking about alternative platforms to focus our efforts on in the meantime.
James Collier is co-founder of Prism (formerly known as Rainbow)