Facebook says it plans to marginalize what it considers to be “clickbait” news stories from publishers in its news feed, in another step to keep its 1.71 billion members regularly coming back to its social network.
In a change to its news feed algorithm on Thursday, Facebook said certain types of headlines would be classified as clickbait, those that “withhold or distort information.” Those stories will then appear less frequently in users’ feeds, the company said.
“We want publishers to post content that people care about, and we think people care about headlines that are much more straightforward,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president for product management for the news feed, said in an interview.
Facebook has been working to maintain the integrity of the news feed to keep users happy and spending as much time on Facebook as possible. The Silicon Valley company constantly tweaks its algorithms, and in June it made a sweeping set of changes that would rank publisher content in general less favorably in the news feed.
Thursday’s algorithm change is not the first time Facebook has cracked down on clickbait. In 2014, the company said it was moving to feature spamlike articles less prominently by looking at other factors, such as if a user has “liked” and then quickly “unliked” a story that appeared in the feed. Other factors, such as how much time people spent reading an article after clicking on it, also contributed to Facebook’s clickbait calculations.
Thursday’s announcement goes a step further. Facebook spent months classifying phrases commonly used in clickbait headlines. Mr. Mosseri offered examples like “The Dog Barked at the Deliveryman and His Reaction Was Priceless,” or “When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions and Saw THIS … I Was SHOCKED!”
The company’s algorithms then took note of the websites from which the articles were coming, and could detect patterns of traffic coming from those sites over time. That process was then automated, and content identified as clickbait will now appear lower in the news feed than before. Mr. Mosseri likened the practice to a kind of email spam filtering process.
The move will most likely heighten the anxiety of publishers that rely heavily on Facebook for traffic and often complain about having little insight into the company’s decision-making on how its all-powerful algorithm functions.
The social network’s vast user base and sophisticated targeting capabilities allow publishers to reach new audiences far beyond the direct traffic a media company receives at its own site. As a result, Facebook has been able to largely dictate the terms on which it engages with publishers, which have few other options for distributing their articles.
Facebook said that publishers that have clickbaitlike headlines and are ranked lower because of the algorithm change will have the opportunity to change their ways and rise again in the rankings.
Some publishers are now betting on a future beyond total reliance on Facebook, as companies like Snapchat and Google offer media companies other avenues to distribute their work.
“Today we’re at peak Facebook — Facebook dominates everything,” said Zachary Kaplan, a vice president at the investment firm General Atlantic, which has invested in digital media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media.
“We will naturally evolve to a place where there will be more competition among digital distributors,” he said, “and that would result in, naturally, more leverage for publishers.”
For now, Facebook said it planned to improve relationships with publishers by becoming more transparent about its news feed practices. Mr. Mosseri regularly meets with publishers to discuss algorithm changes.
“It’s becoming clear to us how there’s a lot of anxiety over what we do,” Mr. Mosseri said. “I spend a lot of time trying to ease that anxiety.”
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