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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