Facebook could be the ultimate social media party pooper. Earlier this month it shut the gates on ‘Likes’ and this week it's clamping down on funky, attention grabbing headlines, which fall under what Facebook describes as clickbait.
Flying in the face of about a gazillion years of best journalism practice, Facebook has decided that it will be cracking down on headlines that attract reader attention if Facebook believes the headline doesn’t truly reflect the content of the story.
Catching the Clickbaiters
There is undoubtedly some merit in trying to crack down on clickbait, but how Facebook will decide what headlines are clickbait and what are not seems a little bit random.
According to the blog post by Khalid El-Arini, Facebook research scientist and Joyce Tang, Facebook product Specials, the status of clickbait will be judged by the length of time people spend reading an article.
They wrote, "One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.”
“Clickbaiting” occurs when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed.
The problem is that over time, stories with these kind of headlines can drown out content that is useful, or content that comes from friends and places that Facebook users really want to see.
Facebook and Clickbait
The move by Facebook was prompted by a survey the company carried out among its readers to find out what exactly people wanted to see in their feeds.
The enhancements, Facebook says, aim to provide users with posts and links from publishers that are most interesting and relevant, and to “continue to weed out stories that people frequently tell us are spammy.”
To do this, it is introducing two updates including the new rules to reduce clickbaiting along with improvements in the way people see links shared on Facebook.
The problem is not so much the ambition but the way it will be judged. Apart from using the length of time as an indicator, it will also examine the ratio of people clicking on the content compared to the number of people discussing and sharing it with their friends.
If relatively few people ‘Like’ a page or comment on it when they return to Facebook, it also indicates that they didn’t find something that was useful to them.
The other update will change link formats so instead of providing links that are buried in photo captions, Facebook will now provide and share links in traditional link format.
Leaving aside the fact that penalizing headlines and headline writers flies the face of even basic journalism practices, it also moves a little bit close for comfort to picking and choosing content or even the possibility of sponsored content.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these practices, Faceboo has prided itself on the ability of people to exchange any kind of information within reasonable limits. So whether these moves will produce the desired effect remains to be seen.
It could also have a notable impact on digital publishers that don’t conform to the new Facebook rules. The blog reads:
A small set of publishers who are frequently posting links with click-bait headlines that many people don’t spend time reading after they click through may see their distribution decrease in the next few months. We’re making these changes to ensure that click-bait content does not drown out the things that people really want to see on Facebook."
Facebook is the undisputed kind of social referrals to sites across the Web and anything that impedes that referral process could have significant impact.
In fact, Shareaholic’s Social Media Traffic Report for Q2 shows Facebook drove more than four times the traffic its nearest rival, Pinterest, did over the course of that quarter including direct traffic, social referrals, organic search and paid search.
If getting rid of spam is a worthy undertaking that, if successful, would improve any news feed, including the ones on Facebook. However, judging worthy or unworthy content by the amount of time people spend on a page is probably not a good way of doing it. Instead, Facebook could take another route and employ more editors. This would greatly enhance the quality of its content by demoting and suppressing what its genuinely spam and promoting content with eye-watering headlines.