On a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, the duo produced a skit on the dangers of concussions in football. Shot in a hyper-dramatized, cinematic style, it shows Keegan-Michael Key playing a high school quarterback who’s been sacked by a defensive lineman, resulting in a concussion. Afterward, he tries to rally his teammates for the next play but digresses further and further into a state of complete gibberish and confusion as his brain turns to mush. It’s hilarious.
As Comedy Central has been wont to do lately after a show airs, it not only uploaded the skit to its custom video player, but also to YouTube and directly to its Facebook page (via Facebook’s video player). What happened next should worry the executives at YouTube.
To be clear, the YouTube version, with over 700,000 views, had the largest audience. But the Facebook version, with 200,000 views, is a not-so-distant second, and it represents the massive strides Facebook has made at growing its video offering into a formidable opponent to YouTube.
Just a few short years ago there were basically three kinds of video you encountered on the internet: YouTube, Vimeo, and various custom platforms used by entertainment and news sites. The custom players were often clunky and had limited viral spread. Though some had embed features, allowing one to embed the video on his own website, they weren’t very intuitive. Vimeo has always been a beautiful product and has a hardcore fanbase of documentary and short filmmakers, but it’s a rather niche platform that never seemed to pose much of a threat to YouTube. So for seven or so years, YouTube was the reigning king of online video, with no other company even approaching its viewership numbers.
Facebook’s video player has been available for a few years now, and I remember uploading videos to it back in 2012 or 2013. The tool was glitchy, sometimes taking multiple attempts to upload something. And encountering Facebook video in the newsfeed was a somewhat rare occurrence.
Due to a confluence of events in just the last few months, however, that scenario is much different, and now it’s nearly impossible to scroll through the Facebook newsfeed without seeing video. So what changed?
Well, Facebook obviously began to favor video in its newsfeed algorithm, emphasizing it over text, image, and link content. And once Facebook page owners realized this by viewing their analytics dashboard, they had an incentive to start uploading more video. Facebook also started to auto-play video, making it harder to ignore (and also possibly inflating viewership stats, which I’ll get to in a second). And then lastly we had the Ice Bucket Challenge, the month-long viral campaign to raise money for ALS. Not only did it crowd the newsfeed with videos, it also allowed millions of casual Facebook users to upload video to the social network for the first time.
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It also helps that Facebook has, at last count, about 1.2 billion users. And it turns out many of those users are consuming video. The company recently announced that it’s serving 1 billion video views a day. It’s hard to find an apples to apples comparison for YouTube, but back in 2012 YouTube announced it was seeing 4 billion views a day, and we can only assume that number has grown considerably since then. An executive from web analytics company ComScore recently claimed that Facebook video had surpassed YouTube views on desktop, but this should be met with a skeptical eye, since this includes auto-plays, and Facebook auto-plays every single video in the newsfeed regardless if you stop to watch it.
Still, there are enough eyeballs for Facebook that it can now make serious inroads in luring stars off YouTube. Recently it has reached out to some of YouTube’s most famous personalities, offering them higher ad rates and significant advances if they leave YouTube and come to Facebook. It knows that these stars can create a domino effect, leading to other midlist stars trying out the platform. At the very least, if it can get some of these stars to cross-post their videos to their Facebook pages rather than simply embedding links to YouTube (what Comedy Central is currently doing with Key & Peele), then this could become a gateway drug to convince them to start investing more in Facebook and less in YouTube. And as Hameed Yousuf recently pointed out, the way Facebook displays videos uploaded natively vs embedded YouTube links is vastly different; the latter has far less visibility in the newsfeed.
That all being said, Facebook video still has significant weaknesses. For instance, though it works well within Facebook’s ecosystem, it doesn’t get much play outside of Facebook. I can only remember one or two times when I came across a Facebook video embedded on a blog or news site. YouTube is still the default tool for easily embedding video.
But even more important is the fact that it’s incredibly hard to discover Facebook video. Facebook’s internal search functionality sucks, and the site isn’t crawled well by outside search engines. YouTube’s search is amazing, and it’s the second most popular search engine in the world next to Google. And speaking of the G word, it’s the elephant in the room. Because it owns YouTube, it can not only crawl its metadata more efficiently, but it can also give it preference in Google search results. Do a search for “Key & Peele, quarterback” in Google. The Facebook video doesn’t even show up in the first page of results.
Facebook is now over a decade old. It kills me that it for some reason hasn’t figured out how to provide a valuable search tool, something Twitter developed long ago. It keeps hinting that it will, but it’s forever on the horizon. Look what happens when I try to use its semantic search to search public posts for mentions of Key & Peele:
“This search isn’t available yet,” an indication that someday, we don’t know when, but maybe, hopefully, we think there just might be a public search feature. Until that moment arrives, Facebook will always be hindered when it comes to discovery — for its video and any other type of content — a problem that the rest of the open web solved long ago.
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