Facebook tweaks its algorithm again, news publishers could pay the price

Even as Facebook tries to convince news publishers like the New York Times to publish directly on its platform — instead of just posting excerpts with links to their websites — the company continues to demonstrate why that is such a Faustian bargain. On Tuesday, for example, the social-networking behemoth announced some new tweaks to its news-feed algorithm, and warned that publishers might see a decline in “post reach and referral traffic” as a result.

In its post about the new changes, Facebook tried to soften the blow by pointing out that referral traffic to media publishers has more than doubled in the past 18 months, and that it is always trying to help publishers find the right audience for their content by “optimizing how it is discovered and consumed.” The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what Facebook means by terms like optimization. Does it mean choosing the most high-quality content? Showing users what they want? Some combination of both? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that news publishers — and media companies of all kinds — have no real choice when it comes to dealing with Facebook, regardless of the terms of engagement. The social network is one of the largest digital platforms in existence, with a global audience of more than 1.4 billion, and it is also the way in which a majority of younger users find their news. Choosing to avoid Facebook simply isn’t an option if you want your content to be found.

Unfortunately, how Facebook feels about your content can differ from one moment to the next. Fans of the social-gaming company Zynga know this all too well: games like Farmville were once worth hundreds of millions of dollars because they were promoted by Facebook — but that vast audience disintegrated almost overnight when the social platform changed its algorithm.

What’s ironic about the latest negotiations with publishers is that news companies got much the same treatment not long ago: several outlets created “social reader” applications that built up millions of readers, until the social platform changed its mind again and downgraded their content, and those readers vanished.

(This is just an excerpt. You can find the rest of this piece at Fortune)

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