Last week, Facebook gave publishers a rare peek behind the curtain. As part of the company’s Journalism Project initiative, the social media giant released News Feed Publisher Guidelines on Tuesday. The document provides a window into what Facebook values in journalism and provides a loose sense of how Facebook’s News Feed works. While there are few jaw-dropping insights in the guidelines, the document serves as a best practices guide and gives a look into how content is distributed to audiences on the platform.
Our view is that most publishers and Share Rocket customers won’t find much in the document that will change their strategies. According to Facebook’s Vice President of the News Feed Adam Mosseri, that is to be expected.
“Most of this is targeted at bad actors,” Mosseri said at an event on Tuesday. “It’s important to understand what we’re doing and why so you don’t get caught in the cross-hairs.”
The announcement also came at an opportune time to reassure publishers. Facebook also confirmed this week that in six countries they are testing splitting the News Feed into two separate feeds, one for posts from friends and family and another with posts from Pages. However, Mosseri was quick to clarify in a blog post that it was only a test and there was no intention to roll the split News Feed out globally.
We’ll share some of what we found to be the most enlightening portions of the guidelines below, but first, you need to understand how the News Feed works. Last week, we got our clearest view of that yet.
How Facebook’s News Feed Works
Facebook’s News Feed is based off an algorithm they call “Ranking.” Ranking tries to assess how interested people are in each and every story they could see on Facebook. It consists of four key elements:
- Inventory: Facebook determines what content is available from your friends and Pages you’ve decided to follow.
- Signals: The company considers hundreds of thousands of data points related to that Inventory of content. The range from the simple global factors (i.e. – Who posted this story? When was it posted?) to individual details about the user interacting with the content (i.e. – What time is it where the user is located? How fast is their internet connection?).
- Predictions: Based on past behavior, Facebook tries to determine how likely an individual is to interact with that post. They attempt to predict everything from how likely a user is to engage with a post to how long they might read the story to qualitative predictions like how likely the user would be to say they found the story informative. It also predicts how likely it is that the post is clickbait or links to a “low-quality webpage.”
- Score: Finally, the Predictions are weighted and rolled up into a relevancy score, a number that indicates how interested they think you are in any given story. The content is then ordered in the News Feed by those scores. This process repeats every time an individual opens Facebook.
What are Facebook’s guiding principles in distributing content?
Mosseri says Facebook’s mission is to “connect people to the stories that matter to them most.” But how exactly is that measured? And what can publishers do to help ensure that they are publishing content that matters to individuals most?
The brunt of the guidelines published last week deal with this idea. Facebook has broken the topic down to three guiding “Publisher Principles.” Let’s see what they have to say about each:
Each principle is based on a pretty simple idea and each is already fairly standard among reputable news outlets. Facebook’s first principle says publishers “should ideally focus on what they do best; making the important and meaningful stories interesting to their audience.”
However, the details in the sub-topics do contain a few useful insights even for established news broadcasters or publishers. Below we’ll examine each bullet point under the guiding principles:
- Create content your audience will find interesting and meaningful: Again, here Facebook encourages publishers to use all the tools it has made available, such as Facebook Live, Instant Articles, video, 360, and photos. Many of the best practices in this section have been published by Facebook when the features were launched, but it may be helpful to review these if you are not getting the desired results from your Instant Articles, Facebook Live, or 360-Degree Video posts.
- Optimize your mobile web experience: The main takeaway on this point is that Facebook considers the mobile user experience to be significant. One of the Signals that informs the News Feed is how quickly stories load on mobile. The guidelines suggest a number of free tools that evaluate mobile site performance and generate suggestions for improvements. Facebook also provides a short list of its own tips to improve the speed of your mobile site, including things like minimizing landing page redirects, plugins and link shorteners, and compressing files to decrease mobile rendering time.
- Follow these News Feed posting tips: Post frequently – Facebook says you don’t need to worry about spamming your followers as long as the content you post is new and high quality. Make your posts timely – “don’t wait too long to post on a trending topic.” Build credibility, relevance, and trust with your audience. Don’t look for a silver bullet when posting to News Feed – “There’s no single right time to post, number of posts or type of post that will work across all publishers.”
The second principle focuses on avoiding clickbait. “We work hard to understand what type of posts people consider genuine so that we can rank them higher in News Feed,” Facebook says. “We work to understand what kinds of stories people find misleading, sensational and spammy, to make sure people see those less.”
- Do not post links that are considered clickbait: Don’t game the system. “’Click-baiting’ is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see,” Facebook says. They also say they penalize Pages for “doing things like asking for likes, comments or shares.” But you can repent! Facebook says if a Page stops posting clickbait headlines their posts will stop being penalized in the rankings. Facebook recommends posting headlines that set “appropriate expectations.” Instead of creating an information gap, they encourage publishers to use “text prompts and calls to action” to encourage engagement (but apparently not calls to action that explicitly ask for likes, comments or shares). On the “Don’ts” side of the coin, do not withhold information in a headline or exaggerate or sensationalize content in a headline.
- Do not post links to low-quality web page experiences: Low-quality experiences in Facebook’s eyes means that the web page contains little substantive content and lots of ads. They recommend minimizing text that blocks or prevents people from viewing the text on the landing page, keeping the ads-to-content ratio at acceptable levels, and not using images that are excessively cropped so that users must click to view the full image.
- Do not post misleading content: This is Facebook’s stand against fake news, or as they’ve called it, false news. They briefly outline their tactics to fight the phenomenon, which includes disrupting economic incentives for those that post fake news, building new products to prevent the spread of it, and helping people make informed decisions when they do encounter it. Here Facebook also outlines a basic tenet of good journalism: post stories built on quality sources and verifiable facts and don’t post or share unverified information. Also, they encourage users and publishers to flag stories that are inaccurate as “disputed” because the earlier they can detect a piece of fake news, the earlier they can prevent it from spreading.
- Do not mislead users through deceptive actions: An example of this includes “cloaking,” when a publisher suggests a link will go to one place but then takes the user to something unrelated. To fight this, Facebook now prevents non-publisher Pages from overwriting link metadata when the content is posted. Facebook also says not to create images with fake play buttons or notifications, not to impersonate other Pages or publishers, and to avoid creating polls that encourage “deceptive liking and reactions” by including static or looping images in Facebook Live.
- Protect your content and don’t post content you don’t have the right to share: Facebook encourages all publishers to read the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Publishers can use the Rights Manager to protect intellectual property they own by maintaining a reference library of video content to monitor and protect and reporting potentially infringing content to Facebook.
We’ll go quickly through this final principle, because most of its points are pretty widely accepted and not an issue for Share Rocket customers, though they are important. Most of it is covered in Facebook’s Community Standards, if you need a refresher.
- Do not post content that contains inappropriate nudity and/or sexual activity: Apparently appropriate nudity is still fine – in this case, it sounds like that would be a less-than-fully-exposed buttock or a female breast without showing the nipple. Exceptions include images shared for medical or health purposes. Breastfeeding photos are okay, as are photos or paintings, sculptures and other art that includes nude figures. Fun fact: Facebook also says it will remove descriptions of sexual acts in “vivid detail,” so keep it non-specific.
- Do not post content that encourages direct violence or criminality: Facebook removes this content and works with law enforcement when they believe there is a “genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.” Some things to avoid: Direct threats, content expressing support for dangerous organizations, direct threats or hate speech directed at public figures, the use of Facebook to facilitate criminal activity, and content that threatens or promotes sexual violence or exploitation.
- Do not post content that encourages bullying or harassment: “We allow you to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but remove content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them. We define private individuals as people who have neither sought nor gained news attention or the interest of the public, by way of their actions or public profession.”
- Do not post hate speech: “Sometimes publishers share content containing someone else’s hate speech for the purpose of raising awareness or educating others about that hate speech. When this is the case, we expect publishers to clearly indicate their purpose, which helps us better understand why they shared that content.”
- Do not post gratuitous violence and graphic content: Again, here Facebook encourages legitimate publishers to explain why they are sharing the content if it may cross a line. They also say you should warn your audience if what they are about to see contains graphic content.
- Do not encourage self-injury: This includes suicide or self-injury, which includes self-mutilation and eating disorders, but does not include body modification. It also includes identifying victims of suicide or self-injury and targeting them for attack, whether it’s serious or intended as a joke.
- For journalists, keep your accounts safe: This is one of the longest sub-sections in the guidelines, though much of it is the same tips you would give anyone looking to protect themselves online. Protect your password, get alerts about unrecognized devices, use two-factor authentication, and use Facebook tools like Security Checkup and Privacy Checkup to make sure your account is secure and see who is able to view your posts. This section also encourages journalists to use Page moderation tools to moderate comments and posts and ban people who continually publish spam on your Page. Facebook recommends using messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for private communications with sources and using the Tor browser to conceal your IP address.
Share Rocket’s View
All in all, these guidelines are a step in the right direction in providing some direction for publishers and explaining how Facebook’s News Feed works, but they don’t include anything revolutionary for most legitimate publishers. Facebook is saying and doing the right things to increase publishers’ confidence in the platform, but the best practices don’t offer much in the way of practical tips a publisher could use to increase their organic reach. They primarily offer ways to avoid having your organic reach hampered even further than some publishers say it already has been compared to the early days of Pages.
While Facebook’s News Feed Publisher Guidelines are a noble step to define what is welcome on the platform, most Share Rocket customers will find they’re already producing it. What they would really like to see are tips to increase their organic reach and the ability to generate meaningful revenue for their efforts on the platform.
In the coming weeks, Share Rocket will be conducting an in-depth analysis of News Feed changes and if they are impacting reach and engagement levels for local news stations. Stay tuned to this blog for our analysis.