Publishers weigh in on Facebook algorithm affect following Worner's warning

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 11 July 2016
Facebook Instant Article

Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner has warned publishers to be wary of ceding too much power to “content aggregators” such as Facebook and Google, following news Facebook would change its algorithm to prioritise content from family and friends.

In an article from The Australian, Worner says Facebook and Google have positioned themselves as powerful gatekeepers, and publishers need to remember they are not content creators, rather aggregators.

The warning echoes the Guardian UK editor-in-chief Katharine Viner’s recent comments at trade body ISBA’s event, where she said the future of publishing is now in “the hands of the few who can control the destiny of many”, as publishers worry advertising growth is increasingly going to Facebook and Google.

Similarly, Nine Entertainment Co chief digital and marketing officer Alex Parsons told the Australian publishers should be wary of the pitfalls of hosting content on Facebook as they may be giving away valuable assets.

Despite concerns from these industry heads, Australian publishers are remaining coy on what the Facebook algorithm change could mean moving forward.

Seven West Media owned Pacific Magazines' head of digital and innovation, Darren Kerry, told AdNews at this point it’s a case of wait and see. Many publishers had the same response as Kerry when approached by AdNews for views.

One publishing social head, who didn't want to be named, told AdNews it’s frustrating to publishers when Facebook is constantly changing how it works.

“Every time we get a handle on the latest update, they change it again. You do feel a bit short changed because you work so hard to make content for specific platforms. That's why we don't put all our eggs in one basket with Facebook,” she told AdNews.

Last year, Facebook announced publishers could publish directly to the platform through its Instant Article offering, with local players such as Fairfax, The Guardian and PopSugar getting on board.

There’s no denying its benefit for publishers to be involved in Instant Articles, offering faster load times and greater reach.

However it seems since the idea of Instant Articles, Facebook has come full circle, deprioritising publishers’ content.

Facebook’s change has the potential to limit the upside of Instant Articles, being the audience. Organic reach for publishers and brands has seen a decline in recent years, which is why publishers agreed to host their content on its platform in the first place. It's likely ad costs will now rise, as publishers move to using paid advertising on Facebook to make up for the loss in reach. This could make advertising less accessible to small publishers.

Speaking to AdNews, Facebook says Instant Articles “won't be impacted any different than any other Page post”.

“The specific impact on your Page’s distribution and other metrics may vary depending on the composition of your audience. For example, if a lot of your referral traffic is the result of people sharing your content and their friends liking and commenting on it, there will be less of an impact than if the majority of your traffic comes directly through Page posts,” Facebook says.

The digital giant encourages publishers to post things that their audience are likely to share with friends.

Mia Freedman, the founder of Mamamia Women’s Network, tells AdNews the digital-only publisher welcomes the update as the algorithm preferences stories that are shared by individuals on their pages – a behaviour its target audience already tends to do.

“Any publisher creating content for women is automatically advantaged because women by their very nature are hugely engaged and active sharers on social media," Freedman says.

“Mamamia was founded on the principle of social sharing and we have built our company on understanding why women share content and knowing how to tailor that content to make them share it even more."

Junkee Media CEO Neil Ackland tells AdNews its Facebook strategy won't change.

“Facebook’s algorithm is like the weather, you can’t control it so you just need to be prepared for the storm and get on with creating quality content,” Ackland says.

“It remains to be seen what effect the new changes will have but our Facebook strategy will not change. We are focused on creating original, shareable So-Mo-Vi (social mobile video) for the platform and we expect Facebook to favour that content.”

AdNews understands publishers who haven't opted to use Instant Articles may be in a better position than those who have, now the algorithm has changed.

Bauer is a publisher who has not used Instant Articles or put money behind boosting its content, relying on organic reach to target its audience.

Bauer audience manager director Sarla Fernando says: “Given that Bauer has a purely organic social strategy for our brand Facebook pages, we are in a good position with the announced changes by Facebook.”

Fernando believes Facebook has never stopped prioritising content from family and friends, rather consumer behaviour has changed.

“We don’t necessarily believe that Facebook have changed its approach… What has changed is how the audience is using the platform. As personal connections on Facebook grow, the audience may move the sharing of more intimate/personal moments to other platforms, but they will always share the content that matters to them – Bauer just needs to continue to deliver that content,” she says.

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