One of the most uniquely Facebook and controversial features of the social network is how it ranks the items you see in the News Feed. Users want the News Feed to show them more interesting items, they don’t want to see irrelevant posts — and publishers want everyone clicking their links and reading their content.
But as the company approaches the seventh anniversary of News Feed, it’s opening up a little and talking more about the ranking process and recent changes.
“We wanted to begin the process of demystifying the process of the News Feed rankings for you guys and the public,” VP of Product Chris Cox told reporters on Tuesday, acknowledging the tensions between consumers and publishers. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to create a balance. We want transparency with the publisher about the insights on what’s happening with the content they post. But ultimately, we’re in the business of people having the most interesting and engaging experience every time they come back.”
The company has actually been working on three different tweaks to the News Feed as a way to get people reading more. Lars Backstrom, engineering manager for News Feed Ranking, said the changes don’t apply to ads. Organic content (meaning posts from friends and pages you’ve liked) is ranked first, and then ads are inserted afterward, and the new tweaks don’t apply to them.
But the company has an incentive to make the News Feed more interesting, even if the changes don’t directly affect ads, because a more interesting News Feed theoretically translates to more eyeballs, which means more ad dollars.
As a refresher for how News Feed currently works: Each users has, on average, about 1,500 possible stories they could see on News Feed in a day, and Facebook applies certain algorithms to pick which it thinks will be most relevant to the user. The company inserts about 300 of those stories into your feed. Here are the three changes the company is applying to make those 300 stories more relevant:
Traditionally, the 300 stories inserted into your feed were ranked first by timeliness, so every time you checked the app, you would see the most recent stories at the top, with those recent stories then ranked by their Facebook-determined interestingness. Immediately after that, you would see the most popular stories from further back, being re-surfaced because they were exceptionally popular. But if you only scrolled down to check a few stories, and left new stories un-read, they usually got lost in the feed and wouldn’t show up again.
Now, Facebook is going to take stories you missed at the time and start showing them higher up in your feed later on. So those stories essentially get a second shot at being read.
Facebook engineers who explained it Tuesday said they initially thought it would be confusing for people, but based on early tests, they’ve seen more people clicking, liking, and commenting on the stories:
- 5 percent increase in engagement with stories
- 8 percent increase in engagement with stories from Pages
- Users went from reading 57 percent of stories in the feed to 70 percent
Here’s what re-bumping looks like:
Re-bumping has already been rolled out on the desktop to 99 percent of users, but hasn’t reached mobile yet. Cox emphasized that the changes are not an effort to copy Twitter, and won’t dramatically change the core philosophy behind the News Feed:
“Philosophically, Twitter and Facebook are still pretty different in terms of the product and the product assumption,” he said. “We’ve always been very clear about what people expect with Facebook. Twitter has built an entire ecosystem about not ranking and being chronological and being real-time.”
Last Actor and Chronological Ordering
The other two changes basically try to figure out how individuals are posting within your News Feed and determine how you would want to see updates from those people, depending on your relationship with them.
One feature, called Last Actor (it has been rolled out already), tracks your last 50 interactions on the site, including likes and comments, and then bumps certain people up in relative importance in your feed if you’ve interacted with them more. So, if I like a certain friend’s post at 8 a.m., subsequent posts from her throughout the day are likely to be surfaced higher in my feed.
The last feature, called Chronological Ordering, which has not been rolled out yet, acknowledges that certain types of updates, like posts throughout the course of a football game or television show from a single user, don’t make sense if they’re re-ordered later by importance. So this feature will attempt to keep a series of posts from a users within chronological order as they’re shown in the feed.
What it all means
Cox said that when the New Feed first rolled out back in 2006, he and the early employees were trying to put together some of the most interesting moments by turning a dial here or there, but it wasn’t a highly advanced algorithm at that point. They just wanted to make it easier for people to keep track of friends without having to visit individual profiles.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since 2006. The News Feed is the most valuable real estate Facebook has, and reports that the company will be rolling out video ads on that space for $2.5 million dollars a day only serves to reinforce this. The company had a good earnings report this quarter that was based on its success in serving up mobile ads — ads that appear on the News Feed. So there’s no question Facebook has to handle any changes extremely carefully, but there’s also pressure to keep people coming back in greater numbers to keep advertisers and investors happy,
Going from 57 to 70 percent of stories being read is no small number, and if re-bumping keeps these numbers going up, that could be a bonus for the company. Plus, features like chronological updates would work well for people posting about TV — a demographic the company can sell ads around, and an areas where Twitter has traditionally excelled. But if users become frustrated with how their stories are appearing, or publishers don’t understand where their updates are going, that could have a negative impact as well.