Facebook tweaks News Feed algorithm to give more weight to relevance, user connections

Backstrom

Facebook is constantly tweaking its News Feed algorithm, taking into account publishers’ desires to have more fans and users see posts and balancing that with users’ desire for their best experience. Facebook announced in a media session Tuesday two changes to News Feed that they feel will enhance the user experience and create a more engaging News Feed:

  • Story Bumping: Stories you haven’t seen yet because they were “below the fold,” on News Feed are eligible to be bumped up further in News Feed the next time you check Facebook.
  • Last Actor: Facebook will take into account the last 50 engagements of a user, giving more weight to people and pages the user has recently interacted with.

These changes, mainly Last Actor, give users more of what they crave: control over their News Feed.

For more information about Story Bumping and Last Actor, check out sister site AllFacebook.

Facebook also tested something that would give chronological order more weight within its rankings, but Lars Backstrom (pictured above), Facebook’s Engineering Manager for News Feed Ranking, said that it actually led to less engagement. Facebook hasn’t scrapped this option, as Backstrom said that it’s something that the company is still working on, knowing that many people do want to see posts in chronological order.

Facebook is also taking users behind the curtain a little bit more to share what’s going on and inform people about News Feed algorithm changes. The company explained how it ranks stories in a blog post:

With so many stories, there is a good chance people would miss something they wanted to see if we displayed a continuous, unranked stream of information. Our ranking isn’t perfect, but in our tests, when we stop ranking and instead show posts in chronological order, the number of stories people read and the likes and comments they make decrease.

So how does News Feed know which of those 1,500 stories to show? By letting people decide who and what to connect with, and by listening to feedback. When a user likes something, that tells News Feed that they want to see more of it; when they hide something, that tells News Feed to display less of that content in the future. This allows us to prioritize an average of 300 stories out of these 1,500 stories to show each day.

The changes that Facebook made recently were tested both among employees and a select group of Facebook users, and Backstrom said that there was positive response.

Facebook tested Story Bumping among 7,000 daily active users in July. With Story Bumping in place for these users, there was a five percent increase in stories seen from friends, an 8 percent increase in stories seen from pages, and a jump from 57 to 70 percent in overall stories read. Facebook also tested the Story Bumping change with 80 percent of its own employees, and Backstrom said that there was only one complaint.

Recent Experiments

These changes do enact more weight for chronological posts, but maybe not in the ways users intended. While Story Bumping may certainly hurt the chronological order, Last Actor should be a popular change among users. Facebook guesses that if you’ve commented on a certain person’s posts a few times in the past week, you probably want to see more updates from this person. If you’ve shared or engaged with a certain page’s posts recently, you probably want to see more updates from this page.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 12.22.00 PM

Last Actor achieves the goal of giving users more control over what they see in News Feed by bringing timely posts from people they regularly engage with. As News Feed Product Manager Will Cathcart told reporters Tuesday, users do have controls that affect what they see in News Feed. They can like, comment on, and share posts that they like, and ignore or hide posts that they don’t. Based on a user’s past interactions and relationship with that publisher (either page or user), Facebook assigns a score to future posts. Photos from a friend you’ve recently engaged with would be weighed higher than a post from someone you haven’t engaged with in a few weeks.

Recency also plays a huge role in deciding scores.

NewsFeedscore

Facebook does give control to users over what they see in News Feed, but it’s just not an obvious slider that allows people to control the percentage of page posts, cat memes and FarmVille updates that show up when they browse. AllFacebook has previously detailed why the News Feed algorithm (known externally as EdgeRank) actually helps users and pages.

Facebook’s Vice President Chris Cox discussed the delicate balance that the site maintains between publishers who want higher reach numbers and users who want to see only what they want in News Feed:

There’s this fundamental tension because on the consumer side, people are going to use News Feed some number of minutes a day. There’s some amount of tension that is going to get reliably invested in the News Feed experience. There’s thousands of candidates and not all of them can possibly be consumed because everyone wants a really great personalized experience; they don’t want to miss anything important from friends and they don’t want anything that they think is irrelevant.

On the other side, you have publishers who are like, “Why isn’t everyone seeing my stuff all the time?” … At the end of the day, we’re trying to create a balance where ultimately, there’s transparency on the publisher about the insights on the content that they post, but then ultimately, we’re in the service of the person having the most engaging and interesting possible experience every single time that they come to the site.

It will be interesting to see when or if Facebook tests or rolls out the Chronological By Agent tweak to News Feed, which would allow more users to see posts in something closer to chronological order (even though this can be achieved in the redesigned News Feed by clicking the “Most Recent,” tab).

Facebook users continually say that they want more control over what they see in News Feed, but what they really mean is they want no meddling from Facebook. A continuous flow of posts in timely order from people you’re friends with and pages you’ve liked would lead to lower engagement rates and ultimately fewer stories seen.

Think about it — if your best friend posted an engagement life event or an announcement of a new job (types of posts that people definitely want to see) an hour ago while you were away, that story will be buried in News Feed in chronological order because your acquaintance and a restaurant you liked 2 years ago (posts that you probably don’t care that much about) and myriad other publishers have posted more recently.

If users really don’t want to see posts from pages or friends, they have the controls to do so. Conversely, if they want to see more posts from certain friends, they can add that person to a close friends list, or directly choose the ability to see all posts for that person.

Facebook does this for users by showing more posts from people and pages they’ve engaged with most often in the past. Users who say they want everything from everyone would be scrolling for hours on News Feed to find what they really want, if every single post was weighted the same. The site has given users more controls over their News Feed, but now it’s up to users to take advantage of these controls.

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