Facebook cracks down on clickbait

Facebook is further flexing its publishing muscles, changing its News Feed algorithm to reduce the amount of clickbait that users see.

The bottom line: Media companies, which have become increasingly dependent on Facebook in attracting readers, will have to comply with the site's editorial values or face a fall-off in social media referrals.

It's probably no surprise that people do not like clickbait headlines. To fix the pervasive problem, Facebook's algorithm will start playing editor to your News Feed in the coming weeks.

The new virtual editor — built by a team of engineers who analyzed tens of thousands of clickbait headlines — will identify phrases commonly used to lure clicks, such as "You'll Never Believe Who Tripped and Fell on the Red Carpet ..." or "Apples Are Actually Bad For You?!" and push those posts further down in the scrolling stream of information known as the Facebook News Feed.

Facebook's updated algorithm will quash stories with headlines that deliberately withhold key information — a tactic publishers have employed to drive clicks and digital ad dollars — and something Facebook's users have complained about. (Breaking news: these are only bad for you if you eat too many.) Posts and stories that Facebook's algorithm "likes" — i.e., those it deems "genuine" — will be ranked higher up in people's News Feeds.

Facebook has already updated its News Feed algorithm to reduce the distribution of posts that people click and quickly return from, but the clickbait problem has persisted.

"We're still seeing Pages rely on clickbait headlines, and people are still telling us they would prefer to see clearly written headlines that help them decide how they want to spend their time and not waste time on what they click," data scientist Alex Peysakhovich and user experience researcher Kristin Hendrix wrote in a company blog post announcing the changes.

Facebook's updated strategy — which comes less than two months after the company announced it would prioritize user generated content over publisher posts — is sure to have big implications for global newsrooms, which are increasingly at the mercy of social media to drive traffic to their websites.

A majority of U.S. adults — 62 percent — get news via social media and 18 percent of them do so often, a Pew Research Center and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation survey found. Facebook is by far the biggest social network — it has 1.71 billion monthly active users — reaching more than two-thirds of U.S. adults. The two-thirds of Facebook users who get news on the platform, then, would equate to 44 percent of the overall population, the study found.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during an event at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during an event at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

Certain publishers will be impacted more than others when Facebook's News Feed changes come into effect.

BuzzFeed — which virtually invented the clickbait headline — consistently gets more desktop traffic from social media and Facebook than any other U.S. or U.K.-based news site. In the second quarter of this year, 50 percent of all of BuzzFeed's desktop traffic came from social media (219.8 million clicks), and of that social traffic, Facebook made up 86.1 percent (189.3 million clicks), according to data analytics company SimilarWeb. Buzzfeed saw a 5.95 percent decrease in Facebook visits from the prior quarter, and SimilarWeb has noted that if Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm, publishers can expect to see further declines.

Following BuzzFeed, the top recipients of Facebook desktop traffic in the second quarter of 2016 were all new media publishers and were ranked as follows by SimilarWeb: Globo (91.2 million clicks), Little Things (77.2 million clicks), Vice (75.1 million clicks), IFL Science (69.5 million clicks), and The Huffington Post (66.7 million clicks). All of these publishers saw a decline in traffic from Facebook between the first and second quarter of 2016.

Traditional media was not far behind in terms of Facebook visits over the same time period — the BBC (63 million), The Guardian (57.1 million), The New York Times (53.2 million), the Daily Mail (52.3 million.) The BBC was the only publisher able to grow its Facebook traffic, increasing visits by 5.46 percent between the first and second quarters of this year.

Editors will be watching closely to see just how big an impact the new changes have, and tweaking their headlines accordingly.

When it comes to the type of content that users like to engage with on Facebook, both new media and traditional media have seen success, so Facebook's new algorithmic changes could have wide-ranging implications for media companies, both large and small.

Facebook is making these changes to please users, because happy users stay engaged and see more ads, driving revenue. Facebook reported it generated $6.24 billion in ad revenue in the second quarter of 2016.

The most successful publishers have already shifted to so-called native content strategies to drive engagement, a recent study released by content discovery platform NewsWhip found. These publishers racked up the most likes, shares and comments on Facebook in June: The Huffington Post (21.0 million), BuzzFeed (19.2 million), NBC (17.6 million), Fox News (15.7 million) and the BBC (15.7 million.)

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC.