Update (23/10/2017): On Twitter, Facebook’s Head of News Feed, Adam Mosseri, has chimed in and stated that the test is “not global and there are no plans to be.” He goes on to explain that “people often tell us they want more from friends so we’re testing two feeds, one for friend content and another dedicated to page content.” Read the full statement here.
A recent experiment with Facebook’s new Explore Feed could signal dramatic changes for publishers in the not-too-distant future. During a trial, organic reach for some Pages dropped by around 66% according to Filip Struhárik, a journalist at Denník N. Held in six markets (Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia, and Sri Lanka), it switched up the formula we’ve known for over a decade and migrated posts from Pages away from News Feed and into Explore Feed.
Pages will, however, have access to News Feed by paying to promote their posts. Facebook algorithm changes are nothing new, but this is vastly different from simply tweaking things to penalize certain types of headlines.
What’s at stake
Publishers spend anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars creating content that goes on Facebook and staffing social media teams to produce their Pages. Some, like Insider or Tasty rose to prominence on Facebook and in the past few years, social-only companies such as NowThis News or AJ+, have become household names without even having websites at all. And although referrals from Facebook to major news companies has been declined by double-digits in 2016, it remains a major source of traffic for all of them. Any change (or potential change) to the distribution of articles, photos, and videos has wide-ranging business impacts on pretty much everyone.
How things could pan out
Best case: Facebook abandons the experiment and life continues normally
New features are often tested to random samples of users or major markets, like the US, first. The fact that this experiment was held across 6 smaller markets seems to indicate that even they aren’t sure about the potential impact. A 66% drop in organic reach is a tough pill to swallow for any brand or publisher and may be enough to convince them to post on Facebook less and invest more heavily in other, more predictable platforms. If you’re Facebook and you want your site to be a go-to destination for news, this is not a situation you want to find yourself in.
Worst case: Facebook goes ahead with the change, traffic drops
This is the nightmare scenario for publishers (especially ones who are just embarking on a grand “pivot to video”). Maybe, just maybe, Facebook do it. Maybe Explore Feed flops and the only way to get your stories viewed by the audience you’ve spent years building is to pay for it.
Possible: Facebook goes ahead with the change, but traffic stabilizes
We’ve seen something like this time and time again. Facebook changes their algorithm, publishers adapt, and 3 months later they’re back where they were before. If users flock to the Explore Feed and use it as much as the familiar News Feed, there’s a chance that this may actually happen.
Also possible: Facebook tries something else
Is this going to be the formula that Facebook settles on? Who knows. Perhaps certain types of Page posts will go in Explore or all friend posts get moved there instead (I’d be more likely to journey to a new tab if it was to see stuff from my own friends). As Facebook love to point out, this is just a test.
A few other thoughts
Why is Facebook launching a second feed anyway? Earlier this year, saturation of ads in News Feed led Facebook to warn of a rapid decline in revenue growth over the next six months. It desperately needs new places to show you ads.
Ironic twist: A “News” Feed without content from news organizations
What worries me
This success or failure of Pages on Facebook could now become linked to the success or failure of a new product, one that requires user to adopt new behavior (clicking to the “other” feed). If the thought of asking users to check out a second feed sounds familiar, it’s because Twitter tried the same thing with Moments in 2016, only to change tactics and get rid of it earlier this year. Facebook’s track record with new products isn’t golden either. Mashable bluntly described Facebook Stories “a total failure.” Remember the standalone Groups app? That was killed after three years. Their teen-focused Lifestage app was also killed after a year.
I don’t expect every new product that Facebook develops to be a runaway hit. They have plenty, like Instant Articles, which I love, and others, like On This Day, that I never use, but think are pretty neat. A new product that puts everyone else’s success at risk is something very different.
Ziad Ramley is the former social media lead at Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter.