By Jonathan Crossfield published December 18, 2013

Beware the Social Media Content Algorithm Chasers

content marketing-penguin-pandaI’ve never understood lepidopterists. They admire the beauty of moths and butterflies, chasing them across meadows with a large net. But once caught, the creature is dropped in a killing jar and pinned to a display board.

As KPIs go, a butterfly collection is pretty brutal. The very thing these butterfly chasers value is actually mutilated by the act of chasing and collecting them.

Some marketers behave in a similarly short-sighted manner. These are the algorithm chasers, so focused on netting a better ranking or more “likes” that the very reason for these things — the content strategy — is devalued. 

SEO has many algorithm chasers. The term “black hat” was coined to define those activities that sought to get around those pesky issues of quality and relevance with tricks and loopholes for short-term gain. These days SEO is not so easily abused; Panda and Penguin made sure of that. But some marketers and agencies have started chasing another algorithm — Facebook’s EdgeRank. 

Crunching numbers — and your content

EdgeRank determines what you see in your news feed. If you’ve ever wondered why you never saw that update from a friend announcing her pregnancy, but cat memes from that guy you barely remember from high school pop up all the time, blame EdgeRank.

There are three elements to EdgeRank: affinity, weight, and time decay:

  • Affinity is how often you interact with updates from the other user.
  • Weight is the type of content or action. Video has more weight than text; a comment has more weight than a “like,” and so on.
  • Time decay assesses how fresh the update or interaction is.

Social media content algorithm chasers seek to drive more interactions (affinity) with a greater weight so the content reaches as many news feeds as possible before time decay deteriorates.

They argue that improving a page’s EdgeRank benefits the content strategy when an important piece of content needs to reach more people. But when that strategic content arrives (if at all), why should an audience take it seriously when they’ve been fed rubbish up until then?

Authority and trust are hugely important in content marketing — and are all too easily eroded by shabby grabs for attention.

Complete this sentence: Algorithm chasers are… 

Condescending Corporate Brand Page is a fantastic collection of crappy attempts by brands to generate interaction.

Popular techniques include:

  • “Complete-this-sentence” updates: “Fine three-ply toilet rolls are softer than…”
  • Baiting either/or questions that invite outrage in the comments:Are your kids more important than your career?
  • Brainteasers that appeal to vanity by asking followers to add their answer in the comments.
  • Asking for “likes” as an endorsement of some banal statement:Like and share if you’re excited it’s Bank Holiday Monday.”

The predictable backlash doesn’t harm the algorithm either. Trolls are the algorithm chaser’s friend, which is why some chasers use these tactics deliberately, knowing that a backlash will still achieve their ultimate goal.

EdgeRank for good, not evil

I’ve read comics for approximately four decades (don’t judge me), so I happily follow the Facebook pages of UK comic 2000AD among others. This page posts regular content that not only motivates “likes,” comments, and shares, but is also relevant: new artwork, genuine competitions, exclusive content, reviews, fan pictures, news on upcoming releases, and more.

You know, stuff a fan of the comic actually cares about.

See, using EdgeRank to drive people to your content isn’t hard if you think for five minutes about what matters to them.

Why would they follow your page? To get great content on what interests them, or to debate who would win in a fight between Madonna and King Kong?

Fake memes and other scams

Not all algorithm chasers are mere misguided KPI hunters. Some use deliberate deception to catch more interaction in their nets.

Nine-year-old Katie Johnson has Down syndrome. In 2012, her mother Terri discovered that a photo of her daughter had gone viral on Facebook — except the photo purported to be of a girl called “Mallory.” The post read, “This is my sister Mallory. She has Down syndrome and doesn’t think she’s beautiful. Please like this photo so I can show her later that she truly is beautiful.

I saw it. Many did. And 3.5 million clicked “like.” Katie’s image was stolen for a fictional tug at the sympathies of millions of Facebook users.

Why? Algorithm chasing for profit.

Who notices the original page? No one goes there — we rarely leave our news feed. But that page with strong EdgeRank is now a valuable asset to be sold to anyone looking for a short cut to social media content glory.

Social media marketing is disappearing down the credibility toilet faster than you can share this photo of a disadvantaged child that will somehow get clean water if it reaches 100,000 likes.

Putting your content strategy in the killing jar

I say this a lot, but how do “likes,” comments, and shares matter if they don’t contribute to a concrete business goal? You’ve caught your butterfly, now what?

If marketers convince their CEOs or client that “likes” and interactions are the metrics on which to judge success, they’ve merely sold in the easiest KPIs to fudge to get their fee. Algorithm chasers don’t care what happens after those vague KPIs are in the net.  Personally, I would much rather admire beautiful content free to flutter in its natural habitat than stick it in the killing jar of the algorithm chaser.

But don’t just take my views as law. Here’s what a few experts had to say on algorithm chasing (feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below!):

Lots of small-business owners are freaking out over big brands dominating search results. With many searches Google has no better alternative. If you look at a product search where companies like Amazon or Wal-Mart dominate, you’ll see it’s hard to find a high-quality site that deserves to rank higher. For niche searches, smaller sites will have an advantage if they create useful, high-quality content.Doug Walker, SEO/SEM Manager, Coldwater Creek

Once you make the decision to manipulate a platform or system using less-than-genuine tactics, you throw your credibility out the window. And if you focus content marketing strategy on one particular platform — be it Google, Facebook, or some other — your strategy becomes null and void the minute there’s a platform update or that platform becomes irrelevant.  —Nicole Jones, Marketing Manager, CopyPress

Not only does manipulating the algorithms of social media and social bookmarking sites seriously compromise your public credibility, it puts you at risk of getting hell-banned. And when it happens you often can’t tell anything has changed, so you may think you are distributing content and nothing is being seen. In other words, the algorithms are getting smarter. And so is your community.Renée Warren, Co-Founder, Onboardly Media, Inc.

Facebook’s director of engineering, Andrew Bosworth, sums it up pretty well with this recent statement/warning at Dmexco 2013: “If you don’t invest in content, if the content doesn’t feel native, if it doesn’t feel like it belongs, then with one swipe it is gone… I am a big believer that brands are a positive force in the world to help us navigate a really complex ecosystem… brands aren’t something we put on Facebook to make money; they are a core part of the experience that we want to deliver to our users.” —George Wright Theohari, Editorial Director, Speak Media

For brand marketers, it can be extremely difficult to have your message heard on Facebook — especially for non-advertisers. As many as nine out of 10 posts from brand Pages are filtered out of users’ news feeds.

In August Facebook surveyed its users about the quality of posts from Pages and asked: “Is the content genuinely interesting to you or is it trying to game News Feed distribution?” Obviously Facebook is aware of the recent trend in posts asking for “likes,” shares, and comments, which has long been held up as best practice. The question clearly indicates the network takes a dim view of the tactic.

Based on the survey results, Facebook modified its News Feed algorithm so that posts from Pages deemed to be “begging for likes” will now rank lower, while authentic and engaging posts that garner likes and shares organically place higher in users’ news feeds.Thomas Owen, Junior Copywriter, Speak Media UK

Author’s Update: In the time since this post first ran, Facebook  announced it is putting algorithm chasers on notice with its latest changes to EdgeRank. You’re going to need more than memes now!

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of “Chief Content Officer.” Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

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  • Jade

    Thank you very much for this enlightened post!

  • Bruce Goett

    Interesting post. I’ve never really thought about the power of Facebook for content marketing.

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      Powerful for some, pointless for others. FB is like any tool — only appropriate in certain situations. why a toilet paper brand needs a Facebook page is beyond me.

      • http://sellaholics.com/ Todd Kron

        I think Goerge Costanza covered this on a seinfeld episode. “toilet paper hasn’t changed in 100 years, isnt that amazing.”

  • Lyndsay Peters

    Facebook’s algorithm updates have been a real frustration to me for so long. It annoys me to see obvious algorithm gamers showing up in my newsfeed while I have to go chasing down the content I really like. I hope Facebook gets its act together the way they’re talking here – I’d love for my news feed to be a usable place again!

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      I think that’s what the intention is. Some marketers are of course cynically suggesting that Facebook is trying to force brand pages to use more advertising and this is a money grab.

      I’m sure the ad revenue doesn’t hurt, but when the problem was becoming as obvious as it was in recent months do we really blame FB for trying to rebalance the timeline in favour of genuine content once more, instead of unimaginative marketers?

      • Lyndsay Peters

        Agreed – I’m just impatient for them to really get it sorted out, I think. Those tactics are also now so saturated, most users seem exhausted by the post formats and are starting to openly mock them.

        • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

          Except even mocking the tactics still played into EdgeRank previously. Mocking comments still counted as comments – sentiment didn’t matter. Which was just encouragement for some marketers to openly invite outrage or ridicule because you could attract a huge number of comments that way.

          • Lyndsay Peters

            Oh, I wasn’t clear! I meant more along the vein of making a new post (and a lot of tweets) mocking the style for its obvious clickbait. It’s a strategy people are already tired of.

      • Todd Kron

        While I have seen those like grabs you mention above, and shake my head at the fools clicking like on the picture of the injured marine cause they too love America…. I think “I’m sure the ad revenue doesn’t hurt” Is dismissing that idea a little too fast. Once they went public revenue was the new #1 goal, part of that goal is to obscure that goal for the sake of the brands image. For every meeting about how to make more money, these “must be hip” brands have a meeting on how to spin the “for profits” changes so nobody makes that connection. See google “not provided”.

  • http://www.postplanner.com/ Scott Ayres

    Some decent points but Edgerank as you define it is gone. The news feed algorithm is much more complex now and there is an algorithm for people and for pages now in place.

    I think if posting things to get people talking keeps them engaged with your page go for it. Smart brands will do that while other will just bitch about the changes to Facebook…

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      True, true. As luck would have it this article was written for the latest issue of CCO magazine and as such was written a few months ago now. And within minutes of it being approved for posting online I came across links that show things have shifted somewhat this week. (Oh fickle fate how you vex me).

      http://www.businessinsider.com.au/facebook-screws-social-media-marketers-2013-12

      There’s still an algorithm of course (albeit a more complex one weighted against marketers) and some marketers will no doubt set about unpicking its new elements to find ways of gaming the system once more.

      Which I guess only goes to prove the point that algorithm chasing can only ever be for short term gain. As Nicole Jones of copypress says in the quotes at the end of the article, “…your strategy becomes null and void the minute there’s a platform update”.

      And so it came to pass…

  • Krist

    Hi Jonathan,

    I tip my hat to you.

    Your white-hat commentary on black-hattters gaming the system: manipulating, baiting, interrupting, misleading,… all short-sighted scamming schemes.

    How boring all that must be… knowing in the end it fails the test of time.

    Krist

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Such a very interesting topic Jonathan. Facebook wants to make its News Feed surface better, smarter content. With an updated algorithm that it says will be rolling out soon, the News Feed will begin to do a better job of surfacing “high-quality” articles that readers are likely to click on.

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      It seems they may have already begun rolling out the changes this month with some brand pages reporting large drops in content reach. Marketers are going to have to be a lot smarter to break through the News Feed now.

  • Michael Bian

    the ideas are so interesting. id love to read more about this, thank you so much.

  • Abhiram Pathak

    Awesome information dear, I like it. All information is really attractive. Thanks for your valuable information.

  • http://tobto.org/ seo freelancer

    perhaps the most important news, that algorithms become more and more nonlinear.