When you follow someone on Twitter, you see everything they post. When you follow someone on Facebook, it decides what you see. Which is right? I’d say both, and it comes down to the live TV versus DVR personalities of each service.
Should Facebook Show Everything?
The issue of Facebook deciding what to show people in their Facebook news feed came up this week when Nick Bilton of the New York Times wrote about how over the past year, the engagement on his posts had dropped, despite his having gained a huge increase in Facebook followers.
That echoed concerns from Star Trek alum and social media extraordinaire George Takei, who last year was alarmed that his Facebook engagement was down. He wondered, as Bilton did, if this was perhaps something Facebook was doing to get him and others to pay for better visibility. Billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, also got in on the criticisms last year.
I used to be in the “Facebook should show everything” camp. For example, when the Subscribe feature (now called Follow) launched in 2011, I wished it was available for Facebook Pages, not just for people, so that the visibility of content from those pages didn’t feel so out-of-control for the publisher.
As I wrote:
If someone wants to follow a publication or website on Facebook, they shouldn’t have to hope that they’re not going to miss content they may want to see, because Facebook decided something wasn’t important enough to show.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want Facebook to show me everything in the same way that Twitter does. Moreover, even though Twitter shows me everything, I don’t actually see everything. Time to unpack the TV metaphors.
The “Live TV” Of Twitter
When you follow accounts on Twitter, everything they post flows into your Twitter timeline. You’re going to see it all. Twitter’s not sitting behind the scenes trying to decide what non-paid tweets it thinks are more important and should be shown nor what should be held back. In short, Twitter’s not trying to separate out the signal from the noise.
That’s not to say that “noise” is bad. Twitter, to me, is like having a TV on in the background while I work. I glance to it from time to time, and if something big or important happens, I look up and pay attention.
For example, when that meteor exploded over Russia last month, my timeline exploded with the news. I was glad of that, because places like CNN weren’t covering it at all:
In Russia today, a meteorite tragically destroyed any remaining value CNN had left for breaking news twitter.com/dannysullivan/…
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) February 15, 2013
Twitter shows you everything posted by those you follow: news, thoughts from friends, pictures and more. You dip in and out as you like. But similar to live TV, when you turn it off — when you’re not actively watching Twitter — then you’re missing everything.
Those 10 or 100 or 1,000 accounts you follow? Even though Twitter shows you everything from them, unlike Facebook, you’ll largely miss whatever they do if you’re not watching Twitter constantly.
Facebook As A Social Media DVR
In contrast to Twitter, Facebook acts more like a DVR. Yes, you can view your Facebook news feed and see things appearing in a timely manner. But Facebook also does what Twitter does not — effectively records your social media for you. Some items shown may be hours old.
Hours old doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant. It’s more like how you might record a show and watch it when you’re ready through a DVR.
I like live TV, for when I want live TV. I love having a DVR to catch things I’ve missed. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. They’re just different things — and Facebook and Twitter are also different things.
Facebook could do what Nick Bilton or George Takei want and show every post they make to their followers. Facebook could become more Twitter-like. But, that would fundamentally change how Facebook works, maybe for the better, but maybe not.
Showing Everything Wouldn’t Show Everything
More important, showing every post to followers wouldn’t ensure that people would see Bilton’s or Takei’s posts more often. As with Twitter, it would only ensure they’d be seen if someone had Facebook “on” at a particular moment.
There are ways for Facebook users to increase visibility of posts from those they follow, if they know where to look and change defaults settings. I suspect most don’t know where to look or fail to make changes, relying instead on the DVR-nature of Facebook. Or more likely, they really don’t register that Facebook is making selective choices.
For those users who care, Facebook has an entire help area with information about how news feed works. I’m going to focus below on things from a publisher point-of-view, because unlike Facebook users, publishers think intensively about what gets seen and why.
Ranking The Content
Time for another metaphor. Think of Facebook as Google. Do a search on Google, and it comes back with millions of matching results for many topics. But, Google doesn’t just dump all those results at you without order. Nor does it list them in order of most recent. It tries to figure out what’s the most relevant material to show, using its search algorithm (often called PageRank, but PageRank is just part of overall algorithm). That algorithm examines many different ranking factors.
Facebook has its own algorithm known as “EdgeRank” that looks at various factors to decide what might be relevant to show in a particular person’s news feed. How closely are they connected to someone; how often do they like content from a person or page; how often do they comment on or share content from a person or page? These things can increase the odds they’ll see more from a particular source.
It can be a pain as a publisher to try figure what Facebook now thinks deserves rewarding. Use more pictures! Ask more questions! But that’s social media optimization — that’s Facebook optimization — and it’s all part of marketing.
PR professionals know that PR done right can increase news coverage. Search marketers know that SEO done right can increase search visibility. Publishers that want success with Facebook have to keep up with what’s rewarded there (and our Facebook Marketing column can help).
I always think it’s a smart move to encourage those who follow you to like your posts, to ensure they’ll increase the odds of being seen.
A post like, “Want to see more posts from us? Like this post, and that helps Facebook know you want more from us in your news feed,” is easy to do from time-to-time. It helps spread the word, at least to the percentage of followers you have that Facebook feels the message is relevant for!
Another option is for those with personal accounts to remind people they can choose to get more notifications. Consider this:
When someone follows an account, they can click again on the “Follow” button, select “Settings,” and then choose to change from the default “Most Updates” to instead get “All Updates” from that page.
Sound great? Well, two issues. First, it’s unclear to me how exactly Facebook ensures people see “All Updates,” since by default, it’s going to show people a news feed set to display “Top Stories.” My assumption is that this ensures any posts from an “All Updates” account are considered Top Stories-worthy.
The other issue is that this only works for personal accounts. For someone like Nick Bilton, who shares off his personal account, encouraging people to go “All Updates” may help. But George Takei uses a Facebook Page, and it lacks this type of option.
That’s where the Page Notification option comes in. If your page visitors know to enable this, and if they know to go to the special “Pages Feed” area, they can see all your page updates. (Similarly, there’s a Close Friends feed to help you get all updates from your close friends — if you know where to look).
News Feed Changes Coming
That’s a lot of ifs. It’s also why there’s good reason to think that when Facebook announces news feed changes on Thursday, it might try to simplify much of this, in order to make it easier for users to control what they want to see while addressing some publisher concerns. TechCrunch has some speculation on how things may change.
We’ll be at the event live blogging it, plus providing coverage out of it, so stay tuned.
The Messy Issue Of Paid Posts
Of course, just like with Google, if you want a guaranteed way to increase visibility of your posts on Facebook, you can pay for it. You can promote your post to your followers to increase its visibility. You can even promote a post to people who don’t follow you.
And just like with Google, there are concerns that Facebook might try to degrade the relevancy of its news feed to encourage people to pay for visibility. Google always denies these types of things (and I’d say it has an excellent track record of not doing them). Similarly, Facebook has said in the past that the drops in engagement some see on “free” posts are due to improvements it’s making to news feed relevancy, and it repeated that again this week.
Obviously, not everyone will believe Facebook, just as not everyone believes Google. We’re also likely going to see people assume that future changes to news feed are designed to benefit Facebook’s bottom line, just as some are certain that Google changes like the Panda Update or the Penguin Update – changes Google says are designed to improve its search results — were just meant to improve Google’s revenue.
Indeed, perhaps we’re heading toward a future where Facebook will have a series of news feed “updates” that are commonly discussed. If so, you can bet that those hurt by them will scream loudly over unfairness, while those who gain — if the Google experience is any guide — won’t talk about their gains.
One solution could be to separate out all the paid content from the unpaid stuff. For example, Google and Bing show paid ads “inline” or in the same column as unpaid listings, but these are grouped just above or below. Does Facebook need to consider perhaps further separation or delineation? And could your post appear in two areas, both in the paid area if you pay, as well as in the free area?
Will Social Media Go DVR?
In the end, the real judge is the Facebook user. If they’re not getting the content they want, they’ll move on to something else. And, getting what they want is going to require changes to news feed, because how we share and what we share continue to change.
My guess is that we’re going to see Facebook become even more DVR-like going forward. It makes sense. As more and more are posting, sharing, competing for attention, the noise threatens to drown out the signal. Nor do I think Facebook will be alone.
For example, we’ve seen Twitter doing similar things with its personalized Discover area that saw big growth last year. Just as Twitter injects sponsored tweets into its timeline, I wouldn’t be surprised if it decides that some of the unpaid “Discover” content should also get mixed in. I do think, however, that Twitter will continue to have a heavy emphasis on immediacy, because so many use the service for that particular type of “live” experience.
I haven’t mentioned Google+ until now (or in the headline) because I’ve been trying to draw a clear distinction between the idea that if a social media service shows someone everything from those they follow, that doesn’t mean everything is actually seen. It’s not, unless you’re watching that service 24/7.
Google+, right now, is somewhat closer to Facebook the DVR than Twitter the live TV. It doesn’t show everything from all those you follow. It also inserts some content from its “Explore” area into your home stream. Ultimately, I think it will move more toward the Facebook model — giving up some of the focus on showing the most immediate posts and trying to show more of the important ones.
NOTE: Previously I’d written that Google+ did show all posts, but Allen Firstenberg kindly corrected me on Google+. It’s had a few changes — and that filtering, by the way, isn’t clearly explained on the help page about Google+ streams.
If the future does become more DVR-like for social media, that’s not necessarily to be feared. Potentially, it provides for more visibility than a “show everything” model does.
If you’ve been wondering what the search marketing connection is in all this, given I’m writing it for our Search Marketing Column here on Marketing Land, thanks for hanging with me for so long.
The answer is that “discovery” is the kissing cousin to search. People with search-intent discover content through social media, sometimes content that fulfills a need they hadn’t yet put into a search. Being discovered means being in these social media services and understanding the how and why they make you visible.
Extend Through Social Media, But Own Your Own “Home”
Finally, in Bilton’s follow-up piece about Facebook visibility, he cites a small company that “built most of its business” around Facebook, in particular, buying fans there.
That leads to advice I’ve given many times before. Don’t build yourself too heavily on any of these services. Facebook’s not your website. Facebook is where you extend your website. Nor is Twitter or Google+ your website. Buying followers or buying to drive people to your pages in these services is no guarantee you really “own” those contacts.
Extend through these channels, but stay diversified, and whenever possible, get your fans to become real fans, connected to your actual website and company in ways you have direct control over: RSS, email and even old-school phone numbers and mailing addresses.