Digital Media World Tries to Decode Facebook's Latest Algorithm Tweak

By Jack Marshall Features Dow Jones Newswires

It's that time again. Facebook is changing its News Feed algorithm, and online publishers and ad companies are trying to figure out who's in the crosshairs this time around.

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In what Facebook described as an effort to surface fewer links to "low-quality web experiences," the company said Wednesday it will begin de-emphasizing links that drive people off Facebook to webpages with "little substantive content" and "a large number of disruptive, shocking or malicious ads." It may also prevent people from running ads on Facebook that drive users to those pages.

The company gave few specifics about what, exactly, will lead to pages being demoted in the News Feed, but some publishers welcomed the move if it will help stamp out links to pages crammed with low-quality ads.

"For publishers who produce high-quality content, this is great. It's always good news if you don't have to compete with lower-quality clickbait." said Warren St. John, CEO of local news publisher Patch.

"By removing those low-quality ad-farms from both the News Feed and boosted inventory, the remaining publishers will be that much more likely to thrive and be seen," said Joe Speiser, CEO of female-focused publisher LittleThings, which generates much of the traffic to its site from Facebook. "I liken it to cutting off a diseased branch to save the plant."

But the news isn't good for everyone. For one, the sites that have figured out how to use Facebook to drive traffic to ad-heavy pages could see their business models broken. Some search-driven "content farms" have over the years had similar experiences when Google made changes to its search rankings and algorithm.

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The tweak could also have repercussions for the ad networks and companies that help place ads on those sites, potentially cutting off their ad inventory and revenue in the process. Publishers predict it could impact "content recommendation" networks specifically, which often place ads on the types of pages they believe Facebook is attempting to limit traffic to.

Adam Singolda, CEO of content recommendation ad network Taboola, said he welcomes Facebook's move, and predicts it will be good for the industry. He said he doesn't think it will have a negative impact on his business, because Taboola doesn't work with sites he expects to be hit by the changes.

"Not many companies can say they pay dozens of people full-time to do nothing but categorizing and reviewing content... I believe we are on the good side of this," Mr. Singolda wrote in an email.

Similarly John Lemp, CEO of rival content recommendation ad platform Revcontent, said he applauds any changes that are designed to create a better experience for users.

"Due to our extreme vetting process where we deny 94% of publishers, we should not see any impact from this as we have not seen impact in previous cycles," Mr. Lemp wrote in an email.

Mr. Lemp questioned Facebook's motives for the change, however, and suggested it could ultimately help Facebook's business by keeping people within the social network's walls.

"These changes are happening as Facebook has said they are running out of upside in terms of monetization and ad units within their own sites and platforms," Mr. Lemp wrote, adding that Facebook's News Feed has become "the new front page for every media company in the world."

Write to Jack Marshall at Jack.Marshall@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2017 19:00 ET (23:00 GMT)