Facebook’s ‘clickbait’ clampdown: more bad news for news?

Hooray, Facebook’s changed its algorithm again. Normally it doesn’t announce these shifts, leaving media organisations to quietly draw their own conclusions about why their page likes have quadrupled in a month or what’s going on with all that app traffic. This time it’s published a blog post on the topic.

“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.”

This is an update aimed squarely at the curiosity gap, designed to take out clickbait (whatever that means). It isn’t going to touch Buzzfeed’s lists, for example, because their informational heads give you exactly as much knowledge as you need to decide whether to click, and they’re geared around getting you to scroll all the way to the end. It won’t hurt any sites successfully getting second clicks from Facebook traffic, rare as those are. It might hurt Upworthy and its imitators, but  not much, because of the method Facebook’s using to decide what’s valuable and what’s not. Tracking time on page is going to hurt thin, spammy sites where a user’s first response is to click back; Upworthy is very focussed on dwell time as part of its core engagement metric, and it’s certainly neither thin nor spammy.

But one unintended consequence of a focus on time away from the Facebook feed is a negative impact on breaking news. Facebook’s algorithm already struggles with news because of its lack of timeliness and the slow way it propagates through newsfeeds; it’s fine for features, for comment, for heartwarming kitten videos, and all sorts of other less-timely reads, but if you’re seeing a 12-hour-old news post there’s every chance http://www.mindanews.com/buy-propecia/ it’s no longer really news. Recent events in Ferguson have highlighted Facebook’s ongoing problems in this area, and this risks adding another issue: news is fast, and Facebook is prioritising slow.

Time on site isn’t a particularly sensible metric to use for news: most people hunting for news want it quickly, and then they want to get on with the rest of their lives. The inverted pyramid of news writing is built around that principle – give the reader all they need as quickly as possible, then build in detail later for those who want it.

Increasingly, news sites are using stub articles – a few sentences or shorter – to break fast-moving stories, atomising them into smaller and smaller pieces. Those pieces might take seconds to read. If they’re promoted on Facebook, how does a news reader clicking through, reading the whole thing then backing out look different from someone clicking on a curiosity-gap headline then backing out because it wasn’t what they wanted?

One of the fundamental problems with a few large companies controlling the primary means of mass digital distribution is that media organisations who want to be widely read have to change their work to fit those distribution channels. Not just in terms of censorship – no naked female nipples in your Facebook images, no beheading videos on Twitter – but less obviously, and more integrally, in terms of form.

Online media has as many formal constraints as print, perhaps more, if you want to be widely read; they’re just trickier, more self-contradictory, and constantly shifting. Facebook’s changes are going to have an effect on what news looks like, just as Google’s algorithm did (and still does – Google News requires posts to have a minimum of 50 words in order to count as “news”, which is still shaping decisions about how to break what where in newsrooms).

If Facebook thinks fast, informative, snippets are less important in its newsfeed than longer reads, then news is either going to keep losing out – or change its shape to accommodate the algorithm.

The rise of ‘social headlines’ is not the end of search

At the launch of BuzzFeed Australia on Friday, Scott Lamb gave an interesting keynote aimed at puncturing some commonly-held myths about the internet and social sharing. It was a good speech, well written up here, but at one point he gave a view that social is essentially an evolution of the net. His idea – at least as I understood it – was that the internet had gone from portals, through search, and was now at social; that search is something of the past.

Perhaps it’s not possible to say this clearly enough. Search and social as they’re currently used are two sides of the same coin – two strategies for discovering information that serve two very different purposes. Search is where you go to find information you already know exists; social is where you go to be surprised with something you didn’t know you wanted. If you know something’s happened very recently, these days, you might go to Twitter rather than Google, but once you’re there, you search. And if a clever headline crafted for Twitter doesn’t contain the keywords someone’s going to search for, then it’s going to be as impossible to find it on Twitter as it is in Google. It’s easy to forget that a hashtag is just a link to a Twitter search.

But Twitter isn’t what we’re really talking about here. “Social” when it comes to traffic, at the moment, is a code word that means Facebook – in much the same way that “social” for news journalists is a code word that means Twitter. And optimising headlines exclusively for Facebook gives you about as much leeway to be creative and clever as optimising exclusively for Google. You can do whatever you want as long as you follow the rules for what works, and those rules are surprisingly restrictive.

Lamb, to give him credit, pointed out the problem with the current over-reliance on Facebook: they burn their partners, they have full control over their feeds and what appears in them, and they have shown no hesitation in the past in shifting traffic away from publishers if it serves them or their users. All the same problems as a lot of sites have with Google.

David Higgerson has an interesting post that feeds into this issue, asking whether the growth of social and mobile has “saved the clever headline”. He writes that instead of straight keyword optimisation, social headlines require a reaction from the reader, and says:

This should be great news for publishers steeped in writing great headlines. Just as having a website isn’t quite like having multiple editions throughout the day, the need to force a smile or an emotion in a headline doesn’t mean the days of punderful headlines can return, but there are similarities we can draw on.

Lamb also said that optimising for search is all about optimising for machines, while social is all about optimising for people. Like Higgerson, he expressed a hope that social headlines mean a more creative approach – and the idea that now we’re moving past the machine-led algorithms news can be more human.

But search, like social is people; social, like search, is machines. Online we are all people mediated by machines, and we find content through algorithms that drive our news feeds and search results. Optimising purely for Facebook’s algorithm produces different results to optimising purely for Google’s, but it’s no less risky a strategy – and no more or less human.

Picturesque selves

This is brilliant. Identity online is multifaceted, and the explosion in popularity of Instagram and Pinterest is in part about performing single facets of identity, mythologising ourselves through imagery.

Instead of thinking of social media as a clear window into the selves and lives of its users, perhaps we should view the Web as being more like a painting.

This is why Facebook’s desire to own our identities online is fundamentally flawed; our Facebook identities are not who we are, and they are too large and cumbersome and singular to represent us all the time. Google+ has the same problem, of course. Frictionless sharing introduces an uncomfortable authenticity – Facebook identities thus far have been carefully and deliberately constructed, and allowing automatically shared content to accrete into an identity is a different process, a more honest and haphazard one, that for many may spoil their work.

As we do offline, our self-presentations online are always creative, playful, and thoroughly mediated by the logic of social-media documentation.

Pinterest and Instagram are built around these playful, creative impulses to invent ourselves. Twitter remains abstract enough to encourage it too, though in textual rather than visual form. Facebook and Google identities are such large constructions that they become restrictive – you can’t experiment in the way you can with other platforms because of the weight of associations and of history – and they’re not constructed in a vacuum. They rely on interactions with friends for legitimacy – but you can’t jointly create one the way you can a Tumblr or a Pinterest board. Group identities don’t quite work. Individual identities are too heavy to play with properly. But Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr are online scrapbooks – visual, associative, picturesque – and are just the right formats for liminal experimentation with self-construction. Creative and lightweight.

Aggregation – a substitute newspaper?

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Scott Fulton’s conclusion in this piece, but it’s well worth a read nonetheless. On the difference between Google and journalism:

News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.

The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.

But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.

Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.

For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – Schema.org microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.

To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:

Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.

Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.

News SEO: optimising for robots is all about the people

Some people in the news business get very wary of SEO in general. There seems to be a perception that content farming and low-quality stories are a sort of natural consequence of making sure your stories can be found via Google. But in fact there is a wide spectrum of approaches here, and news organisations make editorial judgements over whether to cover something that’s interesting to the public just because the public is interested. No Google robot forces a newsroom to make that choice, just as no print-sales-bot forces the Daily Star to splash on scantily-clad women and celebrity gossip.

If your editorial strategy is to chase search terms, then you’re not optimising for robots – you’re optimising for the millions of people online who search for certain sorts of stories. Websites like Gawker and the Mail Online create content to attract the potential millions who read celebrity gossip or who want the light relief of weird Chinese goats – and many of those people also care about the budget or the war in Afghanistan, because people are multi-faceted and have many, many interests at the same time.

If your production strategy includes making sure your headlines accurately describe your content, make sense out of context and use words people would actually use in real life, then you are optimising your content for search. Not for robots, again, but for people – potential and actual readers or viewers – some of whom happen to use search engines to find out about the news.

For example, search optimised headlines may well have the keywords for the story right at the beginning. Google lends greater weight to words at the start of a headline than at the end. But it does so because so do people. If you’re scanning a Google search results page, you tend to read in an F shape, taking account of the first few words of an item before either engaging further or moving on. [Edit: via @badams on Twitter, a more recent study backing up the F-shape reading pattern.] Google’s algorithm mimics how people work, because it wants to give people what they’re going to find most relevant. Optimising for the robot is the same thing as optimising for human behaviour – just as we do in print, taking time to design pages attractively, and taking account of the way people scan pages and spend time on images and headlines in certain ways.

News SEO is a very different beast from, say, e-commerce SEO or SEO for a small business that wants to pick up some leads online. Once you get beyond the basics it does not follow the same rules or require the same strategies. Link building for breaking news articles is worse than pointless, for example; your news piece has a halflife of a day, or an hour, or perhaps a whole week if you’re lucky and it really hits a nerve. Social sharing has a completely different impact for news organisations that want their content read than for, say, a company that wants to sell shoes online. For retailers, optimising for the algorithm might start to make some sense – if the only difference between you and your competitors is your website, then jostling for position in the search results on particular pages gets competitive in a way that news doesn’t. For news, though, optimising for robots always means optimising for humans. It’s just a matter of choosing which ones.