Facebook’s Head of Product for News Feed Adam Mosseri has given an excellent in-depth explanation of how the News Feed works and how the algorithm decides what content to serve to each user.
However, there was one point that raised an important question which Mosseri didn’t elaborate upon in his notes. When discussing the key elements that Facebook takes into account when determining a post’s relevance – and thus, reach – Mosseri noted that when the post was created is an important signal, but not the most important.
As he explains:
“We look at when the post was originally created. We know that recency is a really important signal for relevance, but we think it’s not the only important signal. So an example would be I have a cousin, her name is Margaret, and she actually recently got engaged. If she had posted that on Facebook last Friday and I hadn’t been to News Feed since then, and this morning my brother had posted a picture of… I don’t know, a breakfast sandwich, I’m probably more interested in Margaret’s engagement story than my brother’s breakfast sandwich, even though her story’s a bit older. But hopefully, if we’re doing our job on News Feed, Margaret’s story would show up at the top, maybe followed by my brother’s sandwich.”
The explanation makes perfect sense, as Facebook needs to ensure stories about important life events take precedence so users don’t miss any major updates from their friends and family. The question, however, is how does the algorithm determine that post’s elevated importance?
When you look at the important ranking factors for posts in the News Feed, they are:
- Who posted it
- Interactions with the post
- When it was posted
- Type of content
Using Mosseri’s example of his cousin getting engaged, there’s nothing obvious in that particular update that would push it higher in priority, other than interactions with the post – if a post from a relative or close friend is getting a heap of response, then it’s likely to show up higher in your News Feed. But that still wouldn’t necessarily cover the use case Mosseri’s highlighted here. What if the news of his cousin’s engagement only generated a few responses, yet it’s still important news – how can the News Feed determine that this is a significant announcement that you need to see based on the data available?
If too many people start using these terms in a non-genuine way, that might skew the algorithm and impact the user experience.
A Message From Zuckerberg
The first reports that suggested Facebook’s algorithm might use trigger words when ranking posts came from a story involving the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg himself back in 2014. Apparently, so the story goes, Zuckerberg was looking through his News Feed one day and he came across a story about the birth of his niece, way down in the feed. The top story in his feed that day was the birthday of a co-worker. This made no sense, so Zuckerberg urged the News Feed team to come up with a new way to rank posts to ensure important content, like significant life events, shows up higher in the feed.
Their solution, in this case, was to give a boost to posts when the word ‘congratulations’ appears repeatedly in the comments. That makes it harder to game, as you can’t just add in ‘congratulations’ in your own update, you have to elicit this response from other users.
And the result? The post generated 134 Likes and 62 comments and appeared at the top of a lot of his friends’ feeds. While this experiment was conducted some time ago now (July 2014) and you would expect the algorithm to have evolved since then, the test does give some validity to the fact that Facebook’s system uses trigger words as a means of ranking posts. Of course, Garling’s post also got a heap of Likes and comments, so those would definitely have contributed, but the fact that the post even reached that many people in the first place adds weight to the argument.
And as noted, it makes sense. Definitely, in the case of ‘congratulations’ in post comments, there’s a simple logic there – the types of posts that people are sending you congratulatory messages for are, most likely, more significant than others, but even in the case of an engagement, as per Mosseri’s example, it’s logical that Facebook could use this as a trigger to ensure that content gets seen, even if it’s not as recent.
A Facebook spokesperson told The New York Times that:
“We estimate that the number of these types of [experimental] posts is very very small. In addition, while these types of posts probably work for people one time, there’s a good chance that their friends are likely to ignore or hide future posts like these, meaning that they would appear much lower in News Feed.”
The statement, in itself, adds more credence to the fact that Facebook uses trigger words in their assessment – but other than ‘congratulations’, how, exactly, could such terms be used? And what might those other trigger terms be?
Basically, you could try and game the system, but you’d ultimately be gaming yourself – working to generate real, genuine response and interest from your audience is a far more effective and sustainable practice. It might take more time, but trying to cheat the process any other way won’t come with any guarantees – other than the fact that it’ll annoy your followers.