SAN FRANCISCO — For years, Facebook has courted publishers of all sizes, asking them to depend more and more on the social media giant to expand their audiences. Now, Facebook has a new message for publishers: Tamp down your expectations.
Facebook said Wednesday that it planned to make a series of changes to its news feed algorithm so that it will more favorably promote content posted by the friends and families of users.
The side effect of those changes, the company said, is that content posted by publishers will show up less prominently in news feeds, resulting in significantly less traffic to the hundreds of news media sites that have come to rely on Facebook.
The move underscores the never-ending algorithm-tweaking Facebook undertakes to maintain interest in its news feed, a marquee feature seen by more than 1.65 billion users every month.
It is also a reminder that while Facebook is vastly important to the long-term growth of news media companies — from older outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post to upstarts like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox Media — publishers rank lower on Facebook’s list of priorities.
“There is now an expectation, in general, on the part of publishers that platforms will change, and that they won’t necessarily be informed how they will change,” said Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “This completely highlights how ownership of the user is a central tension between news producers and platforms.”
The changes will affect all types of content posted by publishers, including links, videos, live videos, and photos. Facebook said it expected a drop in reach and referral traffic for publishers whose audience comes primarily to content posted by the publisher’s official Facebook page. Just how much is difficult to say.
It will have less of an effect, however, if most of a publisher’s traffic comes from individual users sharing and commenting on their stories and videos. As has long been the case, publisher content that your friends interact with will frequently appear higher in the feed, compared to posts shared directly by a publisher.
Over the last few years, publishers struggling to attract readers and draw online advertising dollars have come to view Facebook and its users as a good way to gain new audiences and lucrative revenue streams. That has resulted in closer partnerships between Facebook and publishers, who are experimenting with new media products tailored to the social media site.
Publishers have little choice but to deal with the changes that Facebook makes, given the dependent relationship news media companies have with the social network. Some 44 percent of adults in the United States regularly read news content on the site, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. And more than 40 percent of referral traffic to news sites comes from Facebook, according to data from Parse.ly, a digital publishing analytics company.
Publishers value the referral traffic, but they increasingly fear readers will remain on Facebook for news content rather than visit the publishers’ own properties. There is also concern that some of Facebook’s products allow it to control not just the user experience but also to own much of the revenue and user data.
At a time when the relationship between publishers and Facebook is already tense, any change that deemphasizes news content is likely to deepen concern. And Facebook’s move will be just another reminder that publishers do not have direct access to their online audiences on social platforms.
Last year, the company announced it would adjust the news feed in response to users who were “worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about” — a change that some publishers believed resulted in decreased readership.
This time, in a set of “values” the company made public Wednesday, Facebook made clear that showcasing content posted by friends and family was its top priority.
“The growth and competition in the publisher ecosystem is really, really strong,” Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for the news feed at Facebook, said in a recent interview. “We’re worried that a lot of people using Facebook are not able to connect to friends and family as well because of that.”