Facebook is silently building a human-powered recommendation engine

Here’s how we figured it out.

We advertise heavily on Facebook and were able to build several content businesses. Today, we realized a policy for Facebook Ads that isn’t mentioned anywhere on the internet, so I thought to write this piece for someone else might find it useful.

If you haven’t used Facebook Ads before, let me take a minute to explain the process. Facebook has a rich, user-friendly and sophisticated Ads Manager platform that lets you create all sort of ads on the platform and target them to a very precise audience. That’s the beauty of the platform we loved. Using the platform, we could be present in the feeds of our target audience.

There’s a catch though. Between you creating the ad for your business and the people seeing it in their feeds, there’s one crucial step — approval of the ad by Facebook’s team of moderators. A human being approves or disapproves the ad you’ve created. Only upon approval, Facebook distributes it to the audience according to your targeting and pricing. Facebook has a full page listing out every scenario when they’d disapprove the ads.

For last several months, we’ve been paying attention to every detail mentioned on their page and kept getting our ads approved by Facebook. Until one fine day .

Similarist — enters our new venture.

Being geeks ourselves, we always let technology play a huge role even in our content businesses. For instance, the BulletStory works in perfect harmony with Reprime. Each promotes the other. We’ve gained an insight that if you could create such network loops in your business model, quicker it gets to build an audience. In all our experiments, the foundation is laid by first figuring out how to create an audience. Only once we have a hypothesis, we begin experimenting.

Sometimes you just need 1,000 true fans to get started.
- Ryan Hoover

A month ago, we started building a new business, Similarist — a general-purpose recommendation engine, and for the hypothesis of audience building, our answer was two-fold.

  1. Start out by bringing in paid traffic and build the brand on social.
  2. Optimize the content for search engines as our longer term sustained distribution channel.
  3. Cultivate a community as our everlasting strategy.

When It All Began…

To kickstart executing our plan, we created and submitted an ad. This ad.

Our first ad for Similarist

Like always, we went through every point mentioned in the Facebook Ads Policies before submitting the ad. Usually, within an hour, we get a notification telling us that our ad was approved. With this ad, we did receive a notification an hour later, but it said otherwise:

The ad was disapproved.

Ahan! That was something new. Apparently, Facebook doesn’t tell the reason why they disapproved an ad. We were curious and therefore, the next morning, every one of us in the team decided to go through the policies on our own to figure out the possible reasons for the disapproval. We couldn’t, unfortunately.

We all reached an agreement that the disapproval could be a genuine mistake by the moderator. We decided to submit the ad again. And we did. An hour later, our phones beeped, and the notification said the ad wasn’t approved yet again.

But the second time, we got a second notification too.

Our Ad Account got disabled

WHAAAAT! We got our Ad Account disabled, and with that, all the ads that we had been running for other products were disabled as well. With this, the traffic on our products was reduced by almost half overnight.

I have been told that the Ad Accounts are disabled if too many ads that violate the policies are submitted. We all had a culprit candidate in our minds — the ad for Similarist. We had to figure out why Facebook disapproved our ad twice, and then take a lesson and not repeat the mistake. But first, we had to get our Ad Account back; otherwise, we would lose about a thousand dollars a day.

Losing Money

Facebook has a mechanism for us to make an appeal, but I wasn’t too sure if we’d get our account reactivated because of the blog posts that I stumbled upon during my research. If you’d Google, you’d find that Facebook doesn’t reactivate the accounts easily. And that the follow-ups usually are replied with the following:

“The decision is final. Thank you for understanding.”

Still, keeping the fingers crossed, we made the following appeal.

Hi Team Facebook,
I am grateful to have built other successful brands using Facebook Ads. Unfortunately, today I found my ad account to be flagged for policy violations. I couldn’t drill down to any specific violations mentioned on https://www.facebook.com/policies/ads.
I’ll be thankful if you can point me in the right direction on how to get the account reactivated.
I suspect that resubmission of a disapproved ad (6069137785036) might have caused this flagging. I’ve submitted an appeal for the disapproved ad separately to understand the precise reason for the disapproval.
If this was the reason for the flagging, I assure you that a similar action will not happen ever again in future. Let me know if you can help me out today. Would be happy to continue to build businesses using Facebook Ads.
Mohit Mamoria

I kept refreshing my inbox, but there were no emails from Facebook even after 24 hours. I went to bed anxious realizing we’ve already lost a thousand dollars of revenue for that day.

Next morning, an email greeted me:

We got back our account.

I never felt more thankful. But the critical information was missing in the notification — the reason our account was disabled in the first place. I wrote back to request the reason so that we don’t repeat the mistake again.

We received the following clarification:

The reason our Ad Account was disabled.

So, it was all a mistake. Phew! Grateful to know. Now, next question — why our ad for Similarist was disapproved?

The Last (but Important) Question

I made an appeal to the team to allow them to clarify why the ad was disapproved. More than agitated by the whole situation, I was curious.

Unfortunately, this is the reply that I received.

The Last Answer

So, certain products and services cannot use Facebook ads because of the competitive nature. Makes sense. But, Similarist doesn’t compete with any of the product that Facebook offers.

Could it be that Facebook is building something that we might be competing with in the future? Of course, lately, we’ve seen a feature on Facebook that users can use to ask for recommendations from friends. Could it be that it is just a tip of the iceberg? Is it that we’d be competing with Facebook sometime soon? Time will answer these questions.

For now, we’ve learned the lesson that when drafting the hypothesis for building an audience, we must also factor in the probability of Facebook developing a similar product/service for it may not allow us to build an audience using its platform.

The sentence, “…will not allow the creation of any further Facebook Ads for this product” can give goosebumps to any founder.

Later, I tried creating the same ad with a different Ad Account, and got the ad disapproved and that account disabled as well. I tried creating a different ad for the product and got that disapproved too. Looks like Facebook won’t allow us to run the ad in any way.

This isn’t the first time it happened

Facebook did a similar thing to the Indian competition to Whatsapp in January 2017 when it blocked the Hike ads to be run on its platform.

The news available on the internet tells that they received the exact same reply from Facebook that we received. And this adds a lot more weight to the hypothesis that Facebook silently could be building a recommendation engine.

Can you help?

If you’ve read so far, it’ll be great, if you want to help us out. As you know, we cannot pay Facebook to build an audience, but we can pay several thousand individuals like you to help us spread Similarist organically.

If you’d be open to partner with us (individually, or through your website or your Facebook Page), we’d be happy to do business with you. We can reach to an arrangement where we’d pay you for every visitor you send our way. Pricing is yet to be decided, but if you’re interested, please fill out this form.

👉🏻 https://goo.gl/forms/tlQibGViFh4oq1Ws1

This, my friends, is an experiment that a David thinks of when a Goliath challenges. Hope to have you onboard with us.

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