The Facebook page purge has already begun

This week, a Slovakian journalist named Filip Struhárik published a post to Medium that quickly ricocheted around the digital publishing industry. Titled “Biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen,” the piece details the effects of Facebook rolling out what it calls an “Explore” feed in six countries — Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. What this meant is that Facebook stopped showing posts from Facebook pages in the main newsfeed that a user sees when they visit the site. Instead, the user only sees posts from their friends and family, and if they want to check out posts from pages they’ve liked, they have to specifically click on the “Explore” tab.

The impact of this change was felt immediately. “Pages are seeing dramatic drops in organic reach,” Struhárik wrote. “Reach of several asked Facebook pages fell on Thursday and Friday by two-thirds compared to previous days. Sixty biggest Slovak media pages have 4 times fewer interactions (likes, comments, shares) since the test.”

Despite this test being limited to a relatively small geographic area, the digital publishing industry reacted with alarm. Some began theorizing what will happen “when the Facebook traffic goes away.” This story was fueled by the already-existing anxiety publishers have been voicing for a couple years now that Facebook has been increasingly throttling back Facebook page reach for publishers, possibly in an attempt to get them to pay for exposure they once got for free. Perhaps in response to this story, The Oatmeal published a comic that summed up publishers’ anxieties pretty succinctly.

In the wake of this story going viral, some publishers were relieved when they read a post from Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of news feed, stating that “we currently have no plans to roll this test out further.”

But while it may be true that these six countries are the only ones seeing a page-free newsfeed, it’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks that, at least for some American users, pages are virtually disappearing from the news feed.

Let me explain: There have been several times in recent weeks in which I’ve been scrolling through my news feed and then suddenly realized that I hadn’t seen a single post from a page. So I’ll keep scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling until I either finally see a post from a page I follow or give up trying to find one.

Today, I decided to put this to a more official test. I scrolled through the first 100 posts on two different versions of the news feed. The first, called “most recent,” is about the closest thing Facebook will serve up as a reverse chronological feed in which you’re shown posts in the order that they’ve been published, regardless of source. The second, called “top stories,” is the default feed you see when you log into Facebook. Even if you toggle to “most recent,” it reverts back to “top stories” the very next time you visit Facebook.

I started going through the “most recent” feed first, and for each post I came across I tallied whether it was from a Facebook page, group, or friend. I ignored all sponsored posts.

As I was scrolling through this feed, the first thing that struck me was how many posts I was seeing from pages I’d completely forgotten I subscribed to. Facebook’s algorithm supposedly only shows your posts to your most engaged followers, but for many of these pages I had no opportunity to engage with their content because I simply never saw it.

So by the time I reached the end of the first 100 posts in the “most recent” feed, I’d seen 31 posts from pages, 10 posts from groups, and 59 posts from friends. Here’s a pie chart to illustrate:

That seems like a pretty healthy mix between page and friend content to me.

Next I switched over to the “top stories” feed and began tallying up the different groups.

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I should note before I get into the actual results that I didn’t see a single post from a Facebook page for the first 55 posts I scrolled through. So in addition to showing me far fewer page posts, Facebook was making me dig a hell of a lot deeper just to find them.

Now, as for the results. Of the first 100 posts in the “top stories” feed, 12 were from pages, 17 were from groups, and 71 were from friends. Here it is in pie chart form:

So yes, right off the bat we can see that, while Facebook is still showing pages in the news feed, it’s drastically tampering down on page posts and burying them further down within the feed.

I have a few observations and thoughts about the results of this tiny experiment:

  1. This is obviously a tiny sample size based on one user, but there’s some larger data sets out there showing that decreased page reach isn’t a figment of our imagination.
  2. There could be two reasons for why Facebook is showing us fewer pages. The first is that the conspiracy theories are true and this is Facebook’s way of squeezing more ad dollars out of publishers that have grown addicted to its traffic. The second is simply that Facebook has data showing that users are much more interested in seeing content from friends and family than they are in seeing posts from a brand.
  3. While I didn’t see many posts from pages, I did see plenty of posts from friends/family who were sharing links to news articles and content. If you’re a publisher, perhaps this means you should place less emphasis on your own page and more emphasis on activating your fans that are most likely to share you content to their networks.
  4. It’s interesting that Facebook groups were punching above their weight when it came to their distribution in the feed. This aligns with recent reports that Facebook is placing increased emphasis on growing its groups, where it’s seeing highly-engaged communities form. What does this mean for publishers? Well, that perhaps, in addition to maintaining a Facebook page, you should also think about launching a group. Vox did it by creating a group around its The Weeds podcast, and it even got written up in a Facebook case study.  
  5. It’s worth noting that organic reach is low on all platforms, not just Facebook. I have 6,300 followers on Twitter; my average tweet that isn’t retweeted by other users has 220 impressions, which is 3% of my following. I have 38,500 followers on LinkedIn, and lately my average post there has received between 300 and 400 impressions, so about 1% of my overall following. I have over 8,000 followers on Medium and I’m lucky if that drives 50 to 100 views on the platform (not counting links from outside sources). Anyone who works in audience development can tell you that it’s extremely difficult these days to drive organic distribution of content. Users are bombarded with so many photos, Snaps, videos, tweets, and articles that the competition for their attention is fierce. I have a strong suspicion that if Facebook were to revert to a reverse-chronological feed, most pages wouldn’t see a significant increase in page reach, simply because they’re simply competing with the 1,500 other posts that are published within the average user’s news feed every day.
  6. If it’s not obvious yet, you really need to diversify your traffic sources. Your goal is to have your users subscribe to your content on as many platforms as possible. It’s not a coincidence that you’re seeing more and more publishers launching newsletters lately; email is seen as one of the last distribution methods that aren’t impacted by some kind of tech behemoth.
  7. A few hours after I did this experiment, I suddenly started seeing more pages — including pages I hadn’t seen in a while — in my “top stories” feed. Maybe the simple act of switching to the “recent” feed signals to Facebook that you’re hungry for more diverse content.

So I think that wraps up my observations. If I had to sum up my advice into a single sentence: produce the best content you can while also optimizing as best you can for distribution. While I don’t think simply creating good content is enough to guarantee an audience, I think it’s the one major differentiator with all things being equal. As Matthew Yglesias put it, the “Facebook-induced traffic boom just devalues pageviews.” In other words, Facebook turning on the traffic hoses in 2012 rewarded cheaper content at increased speed. The news could use a little bit of slowing down.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com