What Facebook’s news feed does and doesn’t show you

With Facebook posts seeing their reach going down and down, as The Internet Works’ social media buff I have made it my mission to find out why the news feed doesn’t show users much of what they really want to see any more – and what can be done about it for business and personal use.

As a social media manager you can correctly surmise that I spend a lot of my time on Facebook, for work purposes of course… So I’m usually first to be burned by the roll-out of the news feed algorithm updates, as the social network tries harder and harder to cultivate a ‘curated’ feed of content the end-user really wants to see, i.e not advertising-like content from companies. But much like my SEO-focused colleagues who have had to adapt to endless Google update-related challenges, I resentfully know that I need to adapt to these changes, especially now that Twitter has hinted at changing its much-favoured timeline to a more Facebook-like approach.

How Facebook’s news feed works

The content shown on your Facebook news feed is determined by a complex algorithm of more than 1,000 factors deciding why you view what you view. But what was wrong with the previous system?

EdgeRank‘, the old algorithm, had a comparatively basic, but effective, way of calculating what you viewed: affinity (with person or company posting) + weight (how many meaningful interactions the post has [comments were valued over likes]) + time decay (more recent posts coming top).

But as people have been complaining all over the internet, the new upgrade (designed to weed out spammy links and encourage better quality content) which has moved away from the EdgeRank formula, has made the relevance of News Feed posts worse, not better.

According to Facebook, this is how the new algorithm is supposed to work:

The news feed algorithm responds to signals from you, including, for example:

  • How often you interact with the friend, page, or public figure (like an actor or journalist) who posted

  • The number of likes, shares and comments a post receives from the world at large and from your friends in particular

  • How much you have interacted with this type of post in the past

  • Whether or not you and other people across Facebook are hiding or reporting a given post

Facebook news feed research

Washington Post writer Tim Herrera produced an in-depth analysis of his own Facebook news feed to see if he could work out why his Facebook was full of irrelevant updates:

“Here’s what I learned about myself [from my Facebook news feed]: It seems I don’t much care about my hometown or the people in it, I’m far more interested in feminist blogs than I am in technology or sports, I’m still hung up on New York after moving away last spring, and I’m apparently very interested in the goings on of someone I worked with at Pizza Hut when I was 16.”

Despite his findings, Greg Marra, a product manager at Facebook, told Tim “news feed is made by you, it tries to show the most interesting things possible for you, it’s a very personalized system,” he said.

After Tim spent six hours pouring over his news feed and continually refreshing, he realised that not only was he being shown posts from people and pages he didn’t find relevant, but he was also only being shown a fraction of the posts produced by his friends and liked pages.

Washington Post Tim Herrera Facebook News Feed Analysis

This is what Facebook said in its blog post Facebook News Feed FYI (2013):

“The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them. Ideally, we want News Feed to show all the posts people want to see in the order they want to read them.”

At the end of Tim’s experiment he said: “The final post I saw was a status update about a flash flood warning that was more than 40 hours old.” And in the end he concluded: “After a full day spent on Facebook I was left with a still-muddled understanding of how News Feed works.”

I found similar results to Tim when I last logged into Facebook and did one full scroll of my news feed:

  • Two posts which were over two days old

  • Two posts from a primary school friend I haven’t spoken to in years (not that FB should know that, but it does know that we have never interacted on FB apart from ‘becoming friends’)

  • Lots of photos of distant relatives’ grand children

  • And posts from people who I barely remember adding as friends

Now, I may not have the hugest Facebook friends list, but this makes me think it might be time for a culling.

Just to make sure I hadn’t been mass de-friended, I went onto my ‘real’ friends’ Facebook walls and can see that they have indeed been active in the last couple of days, but are just not appearing on my news feed.

One explanation for why I don’t see my friends’ post in my news feed is because we generally communicate through group messages not through posts, and the algorithm may assume that I don’t often ‘interact’ with my friends. But the primary reason for this is that they don’t appear on my News Feed in the first place! This vicious circle means I am being displayed near-strangers’ Ice Bucket Challenges and pregnancy photos 24/7.

Equally I don’t see as many relevant page posts in my timeline either.

What page owners can do to improve performance

Here are a few things you as business or page owners can do to improve your reach (the number of unique users who see your updates) so your posts actually get in front of your audience:

  • Remove fake fans who are engaging with your page’s posts – these can bring down the ‘quality’ and make Facebook decline to share your posts as widely

  • Avoid directly asking fans to like, share and comment on posts, as this is the sort of activity the new algorithm is actively discouraging

  • Increase potential reach by posting at targeted times when your audience is online (check your audience insights)

  • Engagement is key to appearing in the news feed, so experiment with these interactive post types to gain more traction with fans: 1. Ask a question, you want fans to comment and not just ‘like’, 2. Post around trending events, 3. Offer incentives (not in return for likes!) for filling our surveys/trialing new games etc

     

What individuals can do to make Facebook more relevant

And if you just want to improve your own personal Facebook use, below are a few things you as a person can do to improve the relevancy of your news feed content:

  • Prune friends list and unlike pages you no longer like

  • Make conscious effort to ‘like’ and comment on posts that you do find interesting, and the algorithm will eventually learn your adjusted interests

  • Swap setting of ‘Top Stories’ to ‘Most Recent’ as Facebook says “stories that people did not scroll down far enough to see can reappear near the top of news feed if the stories are still getting lots of likes and comments” – so you could see the same story again and again

    Facebook most recent stories news feed

Other social networks following Facebook’s lead

It has now been reported that Twitter is considering a ‘curated’ timeline, rather than its traditional chronological feed.

This is despite the fact that a recent MIT study, Uncovering Algoritms: Looking Inside the Facebook News Feed, showed the Facebook users were unhappy with the curated feed, the authors said: “Often, people became very upset when [they were shown that] posts from family members and loved ones were hidden.”

The simplicity of Twitter is one of its defining traits, and why its users now far out strip Facebook’s. When the purpose and use of favourites was altered recently the web was full of complaints of ‘stranger’s tweets’ appearing in timelines, a very un-twitter like thing to happen.

Linkedin has also been widely criticised for becoming more Facebook-like generally. But most noticeably is its new news feed which favours ‘Pulse’ and industry leader updates, over jobs and connections’ professional statuses.

Written by

Holly is part of TIW's growing SEO team. A web content creator, she is also a magazine designer and event photographer. Not averse to a five star meal or premium beauty product, Holly is an avid blogger and social media enthusiast, she will be contributing to the TIW blog and looking after all things social. Contact: holly.pike@theinternetworks.co.uk

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