How Facebook's News Feed Works - As Explained by Facebook
Facebook's recent F8 conference was a huge event, with a heap of information on new products, projects and the future ambitions of Zuckerberg's ever-expanding social behemoth. In fact, there was so much presented at F8 that it was almost impossible to take it all in. Helpfully, Facebook's posted videos from most of the F8 sessions online - though even then, with close to 100 videos uploaded, it's hard to know where to begin.
But there was one session of particular interest that many might not have noticed, one that looked at a crucial element of the Facebook infrastructure which is particularly relevant for for all brands and users. In a session entitled "News Feed: Getting Your Content to the Right People", Adam Mosseri, Facebook's VP of Product for News Feed, went through exactly how Facebook's infamous News Feed works, providing an overview which included a heap of helpful insights to help people better understand the driving force that decides what users see on the platform.
Here are the key details of the session, outlining the News Feed algorithm's crucial elements.
The Mission of News Feed
Mosseri began his session by talking about the mission of Facebook's News Feed, saying that we now live in a world where there's "more and more information for us to consume every day, but only so much time we have in which to do that."
As such, Facebook sees the mission of News Feed as being to connect people with the stories that matter most to them.
"If you could rate everything that happened on Earth today that was published anywhere by any of your friends, any of your family, any news source, and then pick the 10 that were the most meaningful to know today, that would be a really cool service for us to build. That is really what we aspire to have News Feed become."
It's important to understand this core motivation behind News Feed and how it works. Many people have speculated that the aim of News Feed is purely to make more money for Facebook, but the logic of that viewpoint just doesn't stack up - if that was the only motivator, Facebook would fail, as users wouldn't be getting the experience they want. The only way to keep users coming back and spending more time on the platform is to ensure that they're seeing more of what they want to see - and as Facebook's numbers show, both active user counts and average session times on the network continue to increase year-on-year, so they're clearly getting something right. Definitely, there's an element of business in there, but the user experience - connecting users to the content of most relevance to them, every day - is the core driver. And as such, if you can create content that caters to your audience demand, you're likely to win out and benefit from improved organic reach.
How News Feed Works
First off, Mosseri notes that when publishers first post content into News Feed:
"...at that moment, nothing happens. It's not until the people that follow that publisher open up Facebook that we look at that story and all the other stories that we could show them and then try to figure what they're most interested in."
This underlines, Mosseri says, that the system, even at a technical level is very user-centric - the system's built around each user's individual preferences and actions, not dictated by the content itself.
So, for example, if you were to publish a new post and no other competing content came into the stream between when you pressed 'post' and when an individual user with some connection to your Page opened Facebook, there's a good chance that your content would be served to that user. But if there was other, competing content from publishers with which that user has more of an affinity with published at the same time, then your chances of reaching him/her are lessened. This is likely why those 'best times to post' articles tend to recommend posting late at night - BuzzSumo's recent research on Facebook post performance, for example, suggested posting between 10pm and midnight in your audience's local time zone is when you'll see best engagement. That's because there's fewer Pages posting at that time, yet there's enough people still awake to see it.
That's not to say that advice is wrong - BuzzSumo's research is excellent and the data presents the facts as they are - but it underlines the way the News Feed system works, with your post in a virtual auction against other, competing content. If you're posting at the same time as everyone else, your post reach will be lessened purely because of increased competition. The only way to combat this is, as noted, to post at lower activity times, when competition is reduced, or increase your Page's connection with your fans by posting content that they're more likely to engage with, strengthening your Page's connection in the attention auction.
Mosseri underlines this further in his presentation, noting that "the most important input into what you see in your News Feed is who you decide to friend and what publishers you've decided to follow".
"When you first sign up to Facebook, your News Feed is totally empty - it's a blank slate. And then, slowly but surely over time, you friend the people you care about, you follow the publishers you're interested in, and you build your own, personalized experience."
From this, your Facebook News Feed is created, with a range of different posts from these entities - Facebook then needs to determine which stories matter to you most from that selection.
For each of these posts that could be served to you based on your interests, Facebook tries to determine how likely you are to 'Like' each one, how likely you are to share it and to spend time reading it. Facebook predicts the likelihood of these actions based on a several factors.
As you can see from the image, the factors Facebook uses to assess each individual post are:
- Who posted it - How often the user engages with content from this user/Page
- Type of content - How often the user engages with this type of content - e.g. photos, videos, links
- Interactions with the post - The amount of interactions a post has had infers a relative level of importance/relevance of the post
- When it was posted - Recency is an important ranking factor, as people want to be kept up to date with the latest news - though Mosseri notes, it's not the most important factor. The example Mosseri cites is if a relative has announced her engagement, that's likely to be highly relevant, even if it was posted a week ago, so "if we're doing our job at News Feed", Mosseri says, that announcement would get higher priority, despite it being older - though how Facebook determines that relevance, exactly, is not clear (it likely comes down, in part, to trigger words - for example, reports have suggested that using the word 'congratulations' in your post will boost its relevance factor).
At the end of this assessment, Facebook assigns each story with a "Relevancy Score" which is specific to each user and based on their respective predicted levels of interest in each post.
Each individual story which could appear in your Feed is assigned a score and the presentation of your News Feed is defined by those results.
If you finish your Facebook session, then come back again later, the process starts all over again, ranking each story that's been posted since your last visit.
There are the basic mechanics of how News Feed works and how the content you see on Facebook is determined. Given this process, it makes sense that stories from friends and family are going to be given precedence over brand content, as you're more likely to be engaging with those more personally-relevant posts. This makes it more of a challenge for brands to get significant organic reach, but it also underlines the need for Page managers to focus on engagement and interaction with their followers, as opposed to using the platform as a broadcast or advertising medium. Of course, you want, and need, to tell people about your products - that's how marketing works - but you also have to consider how you're encouraging interaction and how you're engaging with your audience in comparison to how they would be interacting and responding to other posts. The more you can connect with them and generate interaction, the stronger your News Feed signal will be.
(And worth noting, the recent News Feed addition of time spent reading content within links will obviously benefit publishers and Pages in this regard).
So how does Facebook know they're getting it right and delivering a better user experience through the News Feed? Mosseri says they measure their success on two significant fronts - "what people do and what people say".
"What people do are things like are they liking more, are they sharing more, are they spending more time on Facebook, are they commenting more with their friends. If they're doing these types of actions a bit more, that's an indication that we're creating some value. But we know that these things aren't everything - maybe you're seeing a post that's a sad post, maybe a high school friend's dog passed away. You might not feel liking or commenting on that, but maybe it's interesting to you."
Mosseri says that to determine these differentiating factors, Facebook invests a lot in their 'Feed Quality Panel' program. The Feed Quality program incorporates two elements:
- The Feed Quality Panel - a team of users (reportedly 700+) who spend time ordering their News Feeds from least interesting to most interesting, which Facebook then uses for benchmarking against what their system would match to those users based on their activity
- Online Surveys - "Tens of thousands" of News Feed feedback surveys get filled out every day, according to Mosseri. You know the ones - those prompts in your side bar asking you to answer a few questions to improve your News Feed
Facebook uses the responses from these surveys to compare how interested users said they were in each story, to how interested the system thought they'd be, which then helps them to refine and improve the prediction models in the algorithm.
In addition to this, Mosseri notes that Facebook places significant importance on giving users more controls over their own News Feed experience.
Measures like who you follow and friend are down to the individual, and it's important, Mosseri says, for Facebook to underline the importance of that element to ensure each person's News Feed remains highly relevant to them.
In terms of unfollowing, Mosseri highly recommends people try unfollowing people who post content that's not relevant to them.
"Maybe you have a kooky aunt who posts funny photos that you're not interested in, or maybe a publisher no longer really posts stuff that you like. If you unfollow them, your News Feed experience will get more interesting."
When you hide posts, Mosseri says, Facebook will try to show you less similar content in future. And there's also 'See First', which enables users to select their own, custom group of people or publishers who they find the most interesting, which can then be prioritized in News Feed. These user-defined measures are important, as they give people the ability to maintain control over their on-platform experience beyond the algorithm itself.
How Publishers Can Maximize Their Reach
In the final segment of Mosseri's presentation, he discusses how publishers can maximize attention and traction within the Facebook News Feed. Mosseri highlights four key measures to consider.
- Write compelling headlines - Mosseri notes that publishers should seek to write compelling headlines - "Not 'clickbaity' headlines, but headlines that give people a real sense of the content that's behind that click." Mosseri says Facebok know that users enjoy this type of content and the News Feed team do what they can to ensure such posts perform well within the system.
- Avoid overly promotional content - Posting too much promotional content can cause your audience to get less interested in your posts over time, which can lead to reduced reach.
- Try Things - Mosseri says that this is the most important thing - "if I could leave you with one thing, it would be to experiment and try things." The key point that Mosseri emphasizes here is that what works for one publisher won't necessarily work for another - you need to experiment and test different methods to determine what resonates most with your audience, whether that's long-form content, short-form, video, image posts. The only way to know for sure what's of most interest to your audience and what they want from you is to try things and see what generates the best response.
- Publisher tools - Your publisher tools, like Facebook Insights, are your key guide point as to how your content is performing and your audience response. It's crucial that you spend time analyzing the data and comparing what works in order to understand what you should be posting and what your audience wants to see. Audience Insights is another tool that can be hugely beneficial in assessing what's of most relevance to your target market.
And in the last note on publisher tools, Mosseri highlights Facebook's recently added Audience Optimization tools, which are post-level organic targeting features that can help the News Feed algorithm to better determine who's likely to be most interested in your content.
Through Audience Optimization, which you can access by pressing the target icon at the bottom of any post as your creating it, you can define what your post is about by selecting specific topics to which it relates, which tells the algorithm that this post may be of interest to people who have these subjects listed as interests. You can also use Audience Optimization to implement restrictions, letting the algorithm know who won't be interested in a specific post, which can also help improve targeting - you can read our full rundown on Audience Optimization here (and our experiences in testing the tool here).
Mosseri's insights are both insightful and highly valuable for any publisher looking to get the most out of Facebook's News Feed. While much of the information presented was already what people either knew or suspected, having the actual rundown from the person in charge of Facebook's News Feed team and how it operates is hugely valuable.
The full video of Mosseri's F8 presentation is available here.
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