Hear We Go Again: Facebook Changes Algorithms, Bands Go Crackernuts

Almost four months ago, my musician-filled newsfeed on Facebook was inundated with the picture you see on the right as outraged artists called Mark Zuckerberg every foul name under the sun for "hiding" their posts from fans. It was malarkey, as Uncle Joe says, but since Ogilvy reported that Facebook had made significant changes to its EdgeRank algorithm in September the howls of anguish have returned.

The commonly held belief is that Facebook is holding content hostage in order to force users and small businesses to use the promote button that my colleague Abby Koenig so eloquently reported on or is perhaps in response to the company's continued poor performance on Wall Street. The answer is somewhat complicated.

First to recap, what is EdgeRank? EdgeRank is the way that Facebook decides what you will see in your newsfeed and what you won't see.

Now, before you start hammering the keyboard about "being watched" or "they have no right" you need to face some very important facts. Facebook is a service you signed you into and use voluntarily under their terms. They have pretty much every right in the book under those terms and if you don't like them you can sue or stop using Facebook. Clear? Good. Moving on.

EdgeRank is very, very important, as it is the only thing that keeps Facebook from becoming everything that made us leave MySpace. The algorithm assigns weight to content based on your actions while logged in. Do you continuously like cat videos and misattributed inspirational quotes over beautiful scenery memes? And if so, hi Grandma!

Well, the system notes that, so when your friends or a business you've liked posts those things, or other content somehow connected it makes sure you see them in your newsfeed.

This is absolutely necessary because of the sheer amount of things being posted on Facebook. There are now more than 1 billion pages. If Facebook was a country it would be the third most populous nation in the world, and every one of those citizens is posting daily.

If there were no filter at all, you would spend all your time inundated by spam and status updates you don't really care about. Remember a while back when you couldn't login without seeing your aunt's progress on Farmville? Facebook tweaked the algorithm in response to widespread complaints about how annoying that was, and now you don't see it.

It's pretty clear that Facebook has in fact done a major update to the algorithm recently. EdgeRank Checker, a company that specializes in helping businesses use EdgeRank to their advantage, took a pretty damned in-depth look at page reach before and after September 20, date the Ogilvy reported the change happened.

The typical Facebook Page in our data set was experiencing 26% Organic Reach [Non-viral or shared] the week before the 20th. The week after the 20th, these same Pages were experiencing 19.5%. These Pages lost approximately 6.5% of their Reach after the 20th.

Other losses were noted by the company after looking into complaints from their customers. Viral Reach dropped 45 percent, and engagement by users such as comments and likes also went down by 17 percent. However, Virality actually increased slightly in this same period, which means that though less content was shared what content was shared actually reached more people.

So what does this mean for bands trying as always to broaden their fanbase on Facebook? Is the social network withholding your content in order to get you to pay to promote? No.

"What really is happening: Facebook is cutting the fat," said Tim Peterson in an excellent AdWeek article. "Rather than spamming the feeds for all of a brands' fans -- including those who may have liked the brand's page years ago but never interacted with it on Facebook since -- Facebook seems to have changed EdgeRank so that brands' posts only pop up in the feeds of those most likely to like, comment or share it."

In order for bands to continue reaching a wider audience throughout Facebook, they will be required to create content that engages an audience. Your posts have to be the sort of thing that makes people who see it click like, comment, and share. The less your content does so, the lower it will fall in EdgeRank.

Facebook is seeking to increase the quality of your newsfeed by prioritizing what makes you most want to join a conversation. It's one of the reasons you've probably noticed a lot more posts from people you argue with online than from people you just silently agree with.

This may seem unfair to bands, who I find to be kind of a self-entitled lot on this issue. Typical thinking these days seems to be that since Facebook is free and most people have one, then use of it is some kind of inalienable right. It's not. Facebook does not owe you free advertising, and was not designed to provide such.

Really, the algorithm change is a challenge to musicians. If you want to reach higher and higher numbers of people, then what you put on Facebook must be the sort of thing that makes people immediately want to say something about it or tell others. This might mean better tunes, cleverer song titles, political rants, commentary on the industry, humorous memes, or who knows what else. This is a social network; the goal is to be social.

EdgeRank is supposed to look at what you've posted, and decide which people might be interested in seeing it, and it's actually pretty good at that job. It's up to you to make it change its mind by delivering the kind of interactions your fans seem to actually want.

Of course, you could try the promote button. I personally guarantee that doing so, even on the most innocuous of posts will get them seen by roughly 20 to 30 times more people. However, if it's the same stuff that failed to grab an audience without promotion it's unlikely you'll see much benefit.

I can also attest that a link to a regular show or to buy your CD doesn't do much for pageviews either. Instead, your best bet is to look hard at what you are sharing online, and think about what you can do to make more people care about it because Facebook is certainly doing that regularly and you will otherwise get left behind.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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