How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Algorithm

The latest Facebook algorithm changes are in, and the tally is Facebook 1, headline writers 0.  As was dont-panic-1067044_1920widely reported over the past few days (e.g., see this TechCrunch piece), the social network has taken measures to reduce the number of click bait stories in our news feeds.

They’re trying to improve the user experience, by studying which types of stories people bounce from and coming up with a formula that flags the content (and marks the source as a click baiter).

Apparently this has a lot to do with the headline – does it withhold crucial information to tempt  curiosities, or over hype the article contents? Facebook offered these tips to help publishers comply. The changes are designed to reward quality and punish excesses of content creators.

Here, Facebook places us in an awkward position. I mean, who would argue for more click bait? The problem is that the types of things they’re now watching for are exactly the time-proven tactics that work, i.e. draw the user in. If the headline doesn’t pull, the shitting thing doesn’t get read.

The devil is in the details – I am not a believer in hypey headlines, and promising more than articles deliver. But hype is in the eye of the beholder, or now the algorithm. I used their sniff test while reading the esteemed NY Times, some of their stories could take a hit according to the screening logic.

Tell me please, exactly how a computer is supposed to make these judgments at scale?

It all gets back to what I was saying earlier, about fighting excesses.  When more brands are plying more content, you get lots of listicles, crappy info graphics and irritating come-ons that are too tempting to resist.  Inevitably, quality declines. (See my post about Open Spaces Marketing to learn how to avoid this trap).

Algorithm writers have been trying to stay ahead of the content deluge for years, guiding users to the higher quality stuff. Recall Google’s Panda update in 2011 (see this Search Engine Land piece) to smack down content mills. Few mourn the decline of those sites.

Looking at it this way, these companies are our friends, and doing us all a service.

As I like to say, if you live by the algorithm, you can die by it too.

As Google says, and as I imagine Facebook would agree, write great content for people not algorithms, and you’ll do just fine (OK, well we may need to rethink our headlines too).



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Huffington Post taps Data Science to go Viral

My recent posts have explored how publishers are working with social platforms to expand audience and IMG_2875adapt story telling formats (see Publishers & Platforms In a Relationship, and Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands). They reported the experiences of social teams and editors at some of the largest broadcast, print daily and native web outlets.

Those featured, however, didn’t go into detail on the role of advertising to boost reach.

At last week’s NY Data Science Meetup (at Metis NYC) we learned how the Huffington Post, the largest social publisher, is using data science to better understand which articles can benefit from a promotional push. Their efforts have propelled merely popular stories into through-the-roof viral successes.

The meetup was about Data Science in the Newsroom. Geetu Ambwani, Principal Data Scientist at Huffington Post, recalled the days when their editors monitored searches trending on Google to inform content creation and curation. Since then it is a new game, as more people are discovering and consuming news through social media.

In an age of distributed news, HuffPo needed a new approach.

Data across the Content Life Cycle

Geetu discussed the role of data in the content life cycle spanning creation, distribution and consumption. For creation, there are tools to discover trends, enhance and optimize content, and flag sensitive topics. Their RobinHood platform improves image usage and the all-important headline.

Geetu’s favorite part, she said, was exploring the “content gap” between what they write and what people want to read. It’s a tension that must be carefully considered – otherwise writers might be tempted to focus on fluff pieces vs. important news stories.

When it comes to consumption, data can be used to improve the user experience – e.g. via recommendations and personalization.

Project Fortune Teller: Data Predict Viral Success

Geetu and her team turned to data science to help with distribution. “The social networks are the new home page – we need to be where the audience is,” she said.

Only a small percentage of their stories get significant page views on the web. Performance on social often varies by platform. The team honed the content mix for each to improve engagement. Part of this was determining which articles out of the 1000 daily stories should get an extra boost.

Geetu wondered if they could mine data to spot the ones that have “legs” beyond early popularity. With this info in hand, they could promote these with high value ads, and populate Trending Now and Recommendation widgets to further boost sharing and reach.

And thus , Project Fortune Teller was born. The team looked for winners according to a range of data such as web traffic growth, and social consumption and sharing. But it was no easy task. There are many variables to consider. They needed to determine the optimal time window, as some articles take a bit longer to start to trend. Finally, they intentionally excluded hot news stories, instead focusing on evergreen content that was resonating.

Geetu and her team mined historical data, using time series analysis to build a model (for more details, see this SlideShare presentation). They notified the content promotion staff when there was a likely winner. The resulting quick action turned popular articles into viral successes.

The conclusion? Machine learning is a key driver of success for predicted content.



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Facebook Calls the News Shots, Upending Media and Marketing

I generally don’t chase breaking news stories – my posts come once or twice a week at most. This may stormy-1472633_1920seem a disadvantage in the fast moving world of social media. But the slower pace affords some perspective –  I try to look beyond the quick headline, see the bigger picture and connect the dots for readers.

And experience has shown that if I miss one news cycle, there will be another right around the corner.

For example, in just a few short weeks, Facebook drew fire for apparent bias in their Trending Now feature.  Research came out confirming that it is the number one social network for news – and the chief way many of us get our news. The company changed its algorithm, decreasing the organic reach of publishers.  And just this week they’re again catching flack – this time, for not seeming to think through implications of Facebook Live, as citizen journalists broadcast raw footage faster than Facebook can filter the streams (see Farhad Manjoo’s NY Times piece).

On the one hand you have admire their continued innovation.  Facebook never stands still, always seems ready to shake things up to keep users engaged and coming back. On the other, you wonder how much they’ve thought through all the implications.  It’s a little like the proverbial dog chasing a car.  Facebook has caught the news “car”, now what does it do?

They seem to be playing all sides, trying to make everyone happy while increasing their influence. There have been the predictable media responses about impact on journalism, echo chambers and trivializing of news.

The reality is, news is  is in the eyes of the beholder – and in a content and algorithm-driven world, Facebook – increasingly the arbiter – says News with a capital N needs to get in line.

Meanwhile, media should adapt their strategies, as it is clearly a mistake to focus on Facebook and platforms at the expense of cultivating other sources of traffic and attention.

Marketers go where media and users do – so they need to  take a fresh look and revise their play books.

As to the impact on users, and society at large? There, I am not so concerned. We continue to have endless choices of info, news, opinion and analysis.

If people want to rely on Facebook to stay informed, that is their prerogative.  If they want to ignore news and spend their time with baby pictures, that is fine too.  These are likely the same people who looked no farther than the bridge of their nose for other views before Facebook.



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Publishers & Platforms “In a Relationship” but “It’s Complicated”

Key Takeaways from Digital News in a Distributed Environment

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I enjoyed Columbia Journalism School’s event last week: Digital News in a Distributed Environment. The half day session was divided into two parts.  In the first, Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,  director of research for Reuters Institute of Journalism (and Columbia alumnus), shared highlights of their 2016 Digital News Study (which you can download from the link), a massive global survey of consumer news habits, attitudes and preferences. Then Claire Wardle presented preliminary results from Tow Center’s Platforms & Publishers report, which will be coming out later this year.  She provided the idea for title of this post in one of her slides.

The session was a great follow-on to last month’s Daily News Innovation Labs Platforms and Publishers session, which I attended and blogged about. It revealed a lot about how we consume news, the influence of tech, and implications and changing realities for journalism.

In this post I share some of the highlights, especially as they relate to the U.S. market.  Tow Center Director Emily Bell opened the session, and Dr. Nielsen moderated. The panelists included:

You can view a video of the event here.

More People are Getting their News from Social Media

That may not surprise, but the numbers and growth tell an interesting story; according to Rasmus, 51% in U.S. now get their news from social media, a number that has doubled since 2013.  12% cite social as their main source of news.

Consumers say that it is less about the social aspect, and more about user experience: they like getting alerts, easier access, and “one stop shop” aspect.  They also appreciate personalized recommendations, above and beyond stories shared by friends.

Facebook is the number one social news destination here.  Twitter is important too.  Fewer are getting their news from aggregators and apps.

Mobile and Social News are Joined at the Hip

The Reuters study revealed the close linkage between mobile and social news. Those who get news on their phones tend to do so through social media, rather rather than by visiting branded mobile news sites or apps. “The smart phone is the defining device of digital news,” said Rasmus.

Despite Video Hype, “Text is King”

Rasmus said that online video news consumption is not as popular or growing as quickly as some might expect from all the hype.  Again, this gets back to user experience: 78% say it is quicker and more convenient to read news  and scroll through headlines rather than watch videos.  Also, they are turned off by pre-roll ads, and feel that video doesn’t always add value to a news story.  People are more likely to watch video on news sites.

It’s the Media Brand, Stupid

Although it would seem that platforms hold all the cards, due to audience reach and deep pockets, Rasmus said their results confirm that media brands are central to how users navigate the digital news world.  The pecking order is: newspaper, broadcast, and native web brands.  Hard news media brands are trusted over individual journalists.

The platforms value cooperation with publishers, as news draws users and drives conversations.

Despite this, journalism “has a PR problem,” he said.  They need to do a better job of differentiation and branding; and social media adds challenges.  The source of news may not always be obvious, and publications lose control in terms of how (and which) stories are presented.

Publisher Challenges and Opportunities 

If you thought things could not get worse for publishers, you were wrong.  Few want to pay for digital subscriptions, and ad-blocking increases revenue challenges.  Yet digital news consumption is growing as older audiences cling to TV. For media, it is not just about distribution – it is about access to new (younger) audiences and experimenting with storytelling formats.

The session was interesting and informative, and I eagerly await the release of the Tow Center report.

A few things that it would be great to learn about in a follow-up study are:

  • The impact of social network ad dollars on organic reach for news brands
  • How trusted are corporate brands as sources of online news?
  • What about the role of influencers in news distribution?
    • Are they more or less trusted than friends and editors?
    • Do people prefer algorithmic selection over news recommended by influencers?
  • Is native advertising offsetting revenue declines in other areas?

I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks on implications for PR and marketing.



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The One thing that Could Settle the Facebook News Controversy

There’s one thing that could put the whole Facebook Trending News bias controversy to monkey-236864_1920rest – but I haven’t seen it yet.

In case you are not familiar with the story, Gizmodo ran this piece last week: Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative Views. The story hit a nerve, given election season timing and concerns about the growing influence of Facebook and other social networks.

To quell the controversy, Facebook made a number of statements and released details of their process for how the trending news “sausage” is made (which was a real page turner for news feed geeks like me).

These moves did not settle the matter. The major news organizations covered the details – but predictably and ironically from their left and right leaning perspectives.

The New York Times story by Mike Isaacs saw no evil; he covered the checks and balances, implying that these filter out biases:

While algorithms determine the exact mix of topics displayed to each person… a team is largely responsible for the overall mix of which topics should — and more important, should not — be shown in Trending Topics. For instance, after algorithms detect early signs of popular stories on the network, editors are asked to cross-reference potential trending topics with a list of 10 major news publications, including CNN, Fox News, The Guardian and The New York Times.

But the Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman saw something more insidious:

Facebook researchers last year ranked 500 news sites based on how popular they were with the social network’s users who identified their political alignment as conservative or liberal. According to those rankings, eight of the 10 national news outlets that play an outsize role in determining trending topics are more popular with liberals.

I’ll leave the topic of Facebook’s response to a crisis for another post (they broke the first rule: don’t piecemeal information, that just prolongs the issue).

It seems to me that there must be some unstructured text mining tech that could settle the question. Isn’t it possible to analyze Facebook Trending News stories to find and tabulate the ones with a slant – and compare the numbers for left and right-leaning stories?

It is no simple task, given the complexities of how this all works. Facebook’s document reveals the processes, which blend human and machine effort. Even after the algorithms and editors pick their shots, the feeds get further tailored based on user preferences and actions.

But the bigger question: Is it really even possible to edit or curate without bias?



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Google and Facebook Updates

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about Google’s plans to give marketers and publishers a way tonews-97862_1280 post stories to search results.  It is not the same as AMP (accelerated mobile pages) – in this case, Google will actually host content.  AMP caches content for faster page loading.  As the article said:

“Google has built a Web-based interface through which posts can be formatted and uploaded directly to its systems. The posts can be up to 14,400 characters in length and can include links and up to 10 images or videos. The pages also include options to share them via Twitter, Facebook or email. Each post is hosted by Google… and appears in a carousel in results pages for searches related to their authors for up to a week… After seven days, the posts remain live but won’t be surfaced in search results. Rather, they can be accessed via a link.”

They are now testing the feature with a small number of partners – the article mentions some of the first to jump in, and links to a page where you can join a wait list.  It did not say if there will be a fee.

In other news, Facebook reported a change to their News feed algorithm  MediaPost reported that it now takes into account the time a user spends on an article: “Facebook is once again fiddling with its News Feed algorithm — this time to give more play to posts that users spend more time viewing.”



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Facebook and Unbalanced? Controversy Highlights Growing News Clout

Bernie Sanders recently called for a liberal version of Fox News.  A growing chorus of conservatives say direction-654123_1920that this exists – in the form of Facebook.

As the New York Times reported:

“Facebook scrambled on Monday to respond to a new and startling line of attack: accusations of political bias.  The outcry was set off by a report on Monday morning by the website Gizmodo, which said that Facebook’s team in charge of the site’s ‘trending’ list had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative news sources. The social network uses the trending feature to indicate the most popular news articles of the day to users.”

I have no idea if the accusation has merit.  It does seem clear that as social networks play a larger role in shaping the news, they will be subject to this kind of scrutiny.  And PR will increasingly seek to influence the stories that result.



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Publish Blog Content on Facebook – in an Instant

Why try to hack a feed when there’s an open invitation to join one?facebook-388078_1920

Facebook introduced Instant Articles last year to speed access to publisher content.  Clearly, they want to improve the user experience and make the network a stickier, one-stop destination for all information needs (of course, they’re not the only ones packaging news for easy user access – Google offers AMP, or Accelerated Mobile Pages – and there’s Apple News).

If you are after Facebook’s audience, you’ll be happy to know that even smaller blogs can soon publish Instant Articles.  On April 12, every publisher can participate, according to their blog. And TheVerge ran a piece that said even small WordPress sites can jump on board – which is welcome news for those who blog as an extension of PR and marketing.

This Social Media Examiner article offers a step-by-step approach. You will need a Facebook Page, the Facebook Pages App to preview articles, an RSS feed that displays full text, and to mark up your blog (WordPress users can do this with the PageFrog plugin). You need at least 50 articles to submit at the beginning.

Good luck and happy Facebook Instant Articles publishing!! Would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences as you check it out.



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