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Facebook Denies Promoted Post Hanky-Panky

Facebook Denies Promoted Post Hanky-Panky

Facebook came out swinging after a NYT columnist described his experience with fluctuating user engagement and suggested the company might be rigging its algorithms to favor paid posts over ordinary posts in News Feeds. However, Facebook's vehement denial probably wasn't even necessary. Most users have become so accustomed to criticisms of Facebook they don't notice or care much anymore.

By Erika Morphy
03/05/13 1:56 PM PT

Facebook has flatly denied the suggestion by a New York Times columnist that it might be gaming its own system -- that is, that the way it pumps up views of fee-based promoted posts could be by limiting the sharing of ordinary posts.

"There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true," Facebook says in a post labeled "Fact Check."

The post is a response to a column by Nick Bilton, who became interested in the subject when he noticed his readers' engagement -- Likes and Shares -- inexplicably dropping.

Bilton tried an experiment and paid Facebook US$7 to promote a post. The result? A 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on the link he posted.

Facebook, "proudly informed me in a message that 5.2 times as many people had seen my post because I had paid the company to show it to them," Bilton wrote.

He then came to the crux of the issue, saying he has stuck with Facebook, despite numerous privacy concerns, because he viewed it as a democratic platform for sharing his work. The promoted post service was hardly a secret, of course. What was surprising, Bilton wrote, was Facebook's apparent suppression of organic posts to favor promoted posts.

"It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for," he wrote.

Facebook Explains

The News Feed algorithm, Facebook noted in its response, is separate from the advertising algorithm, in that Facebook doesn't replace the most-engaging posts in its News Feed with sponsored ones.

The company said it has introduced changes to further promote content from public figures, including the rollout of organic units such as "most shared on ," and "most shared about ." It said its partner index has already seen a 35 percent increase in traffic due to the introduction of these units.

Facebook declined to provide further details.

Another Blow?

To be clear, Bilton doesn't present his ruminations about Facebook's News Feed operations as fact, even though Facebook couches its response as a "fact check." It's not clear why the company chose to reply with such an aggressive denial.

It's unlikely the social network would have suffered any blowback as a result of the column, said Rich Hanley, director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University.

There have been so many complaints about Facebook's privacy and advertising policies that it has become effectively inoculated against new accusations, he observed.

Facebook's problem, in part, is that it now widely viewed as a public utility, when in reality it is a for-profit company that seeks to maximize revenues for its shareholders, Hanley told the E-Commerce Times.

"Facebook has become similar to a cable company in that people complain about it but do so in the context of using it all the time," he said.

'Major Ethical Breach'

Another school of thought holds that this is one more contribution to Facebook's death-by-a-thousand-cuts. Users could become disillusioned over the long haul and abandon the platform if they think their posts are being suppressed.

"If Facebook is indeed suppressing natural sharing in favor of paid promotion as the New York Times article suggests, this is a major ethical breach and could be a death knell for the revolutionary impact of viral marketing," Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, told the E-Commerce Times.

"The essence of the dissemination of information on the Internet," he said, "is that consumers -- not advertisers -- choose what becomes popular and more likely to be read by others."


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