A brief history of the Facebook algorithm:
2004 – 2009:
Facebook was born in 2004, but its newsfeed didn’t show up until 2006. The Like button premiered in
2007, but it’s probably safe to say that Facebook didn’t have what we think of as “the algorithm” until
2009, when the platform debuted a new sorting order for newsfeeds based on each post’s
popularity. (Goodbye, reverse-chronological order).
2009 – 2019:
A decade of further tinkering behind the curtain created the experience that billions of users now take for
granted: personalized feeds created by galaxy-brain software that analyzes tens of thousands of data
points in order to maximize the amount of time people spent on the platform. Because more screen time
= more ads seen = more money for Facebook’s shareholders.
For instance, in 2015, Facebook introduced the “See First” feature to let users choose which Pages they’d
like to see at the top of their feeds. They also started downranking Pages that posted a high volume of
overly promotional organic content. (i.e., organic posts with content identical to ads.)
In 2016, Facebook began prioritizing posts from friends and family, as well as “informative” and
“entertaining” content. It also started measuring a post’s value based on the amount of time users spent
with it, even if they didn’t like or share it. Live video was also prioritized, as it was earning 3x as much
watch time, compared to regular video.
In 2017, some big changes included weighing reactions (i.e., hearts or the angry face) more than likes. They
also started weighing videos by completion rate.
However, in January 2018, responding in part to widespread criticism, Mark Zuckerberg announced
Facebook news feed changes that prioritize “posts that spark conversations and meaningful
interactions.” The change was meant to increase the quality, rather than the quantity, of the time that
people spend on Facebook, as well as take more responsibility for how the platform affects its users’ wellbeing.
In the short term, brands had valid concerns about the fact that their organic content would no longer be
prioritized as highly as posts from friends, family, and groups. The algorithm was now set to prioritize
posts that earned a lot of high-value engagement (eg., comments, reactions, comment replies—and if a
post was shared over Messenger to a friend, that counted too). In other words: to get the reach to earn
engagement, brands had to be earning engagement already.
A year later, in March 2019, at least one study found that while engagement had increased 50% year over
year, the algorithm changes also increased divisiveness and outrage as it tended to promote posts that got
people worked up. (Fox News, whose reporting evokes strong opinions from many, became the top
publisher on Facebook by engagement.)
Simultaneously, the algorithm ended up rewarding fringe content (a.k.a. fake news) from unreliable
sources that knew how to game the system.
The Facebook algorithm will probably always remain a work-in-progress. So let’s take a look at what
matters to brands who want to optimize their organic reach today.
How the Facebook algorithm works in 2020
The algorithm currently ranks the posts each user sees in the order that they’re likely to enjoy them, based on a variety of factors, ranking signal. Ranking signals are data points about a user’s past behavior and the behavior of everyone else on the platform, too.
Facebook mentions three major categories of ranking signals:
• Who a user typically interacts with?
• The type of media in the post (eg.- video, link, photo, etc.)
• The popularity of the post.
In March 2019, Facebook introduced a new tool to build more transparency and user control into the
newsfeed. The “Why am I seeing this post?” button does exactly as it says: it helps people understand why
the algorithm has surfaced that post.
It also lets people tell the algorithm directly what’s important—or not so important, or downright
irritating—to them. Meaning they can tell Facebook that they want fewer posts from a particular person,
or to see more from a particular Page.
Next, in May 2019, Facebook began directly asking users questions, via survey, to get more context on
what content matters to them. The surveys asked users:
- Who their close friends are;
- What posts (links, photos and videos) they find valuable;
- How important a specific Facebook Group that they’ve joined is to them;
- How interested they are in seeing content from specific Pages that they follow.
Facebook used all these answers to update the algorithm with the patterns they extrapolated. For
instance, the Pages and Groups that people identified as most meaningful were often the ones that they’d
followed for a long time, the ones they engaged with often, and the ones that had a lot of posts and
9 tips for working with the Facebook algorithm
With all this background, what can brands do to make sure their Facebook strategy is aligned with the
Facebook algorithm’s priorities?
- Start conversations that get people talking to each other
According to Facebook, one of the algorithm’s key ranking signals is whether a user has previously engaged
with your Page. And while no one is going to interact with your brand Page like they would with their
friends’ pages, those likes and shares go a long way towards increasing your reach on future posts.
That means you have to put in the elbow-grease before the algorithm can start to recognize and reward
your Page’s value.
And by elbow-grease we do not mean shoddy, obvious engagement-bait. (The algorithm can tell, and it
will down-rank your post and maybe also your Page.)
At the end of the day the best way to earn more engagement is to be genuine. Or maybe try curious,
funny, interesting, or inspiring. Regardless.
And always remember that you don’t need to seek out controversy to get engagement. Tapping into a
strong emotion (cats; baby cats; baby cats uncomfortable; baby cats in danger) will do the trick, too.
- Post when your audience is online
Recency is another ranking signal that matters as the algorithm selects which posts to show people. Newer
is better. Now is best.
But when is your audience online?
B2B brand posts perform best between 9am and 2pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
• B2C brand posts perform best at noon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Take a look at your Facebook Page Insights or Hootsuite Analytics to test and benchmark the best time for
your audience, specifically.
- Never post content that will get you down-ranked
We know you would never do this anyway. But still, just FYI, here are a few categories of content that
Facebook has explicitly stated will get your Page down-ranked immediately:
• Links to sites that use scraped or stolen content with no added value
• Borderline content (a.k.a offensive but not prohibited content)
• Mis information and fake news
• Misleading health information or dangerous “cures”
• “Deep fake videos” or manipulated videos flagged as false by third-party fact-checkers
- Post high-quality videos longer than 3 minutes
In May 2019, Facebook announced that the newsfeed will increasingly surface quality, original videos. The
algorithm is increasing the influence of these three ranking factors:
• Loyalty and intent: videos that people search for and return to;
• Video length and view duration: videos that people watch past the 1-minute mark, and that are
longer than 3 minutes;
• Originality: videos that aren’t repurposed from other sources and that have plenty of added value.
If you’re a video creator on Facebook, keep those guidelines in mind so that you’re giving the algorithm
exactly the kind of video it wants. (And don’t forget tip #1: baby cats in danger.)
Pro Tip: If you’re a wiz at video, make sure you’re using Facebook live video, which averages six times more
engagement than regular video.
- Post often and consistently
According to Facebook, Pages that post often are more likely to be meaningful to their audience.
Therefore, posting frequency is a ranking signal that can affect how high up in the newsfeed your posts are
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: a social media content calendar goes a long way towards
achieving the kind of consistent quality that will keep your audience engaged and attentive.
Hootsuite’s planning tool takes care of all of that, if you’re inclined to give it a try.
- Leverage Facebook Groups that are meaningful to your audience
At Facebook’s 2019 F8 conference we heard that Groups continue to be one of the most valuable parts of
Facebook, according to user behavior. What’s key for brands here is that Facebook said people “may see
more content from Groups in their newsfeed.”
Facebook itself is doing its part to promote the feature with a redesigned Groups tab that shows new
activity. As well, by helping people discover new communities with a Suggested Groups sidebar (as well as
in other high-vis spots throughout the platform, like the Gaming tab and Marketplace).
With Facebook’s “F5” design refresh devoting significant screen real estate to Groups, and the algorithm
prioritizing Groups content, brands should plan to take advantage.
How? Consider starting a new Group based on your brand Page. A Group can be where you foster
discussion, education, problem-solving and, yes, solid entertainment about the topics that matter to your
- Support your organic wins with paid ads
While your brand’s organic content can deepen your relationship with your audience, Facebook ads remain
the best way to expand your brand awareness to the 2.4 billion potential customers who use Facebook.
And Facebook’s targeting capabilities may get even more important for advertisers who care about
audience data, given Google’s recent announcement that Chrome is phasing out third-party cookies.
As you track your high-performing content, make sure you capitalize on the ability to turn it into low-CPC
(a.k.a cheap) advertising for your brand’s voice. With Hootsuite Ads, you can set up, test and analyze an
entire funnel’s worth of ads:
- Let your followers know how to prioritize your content in their newsfeeds
With Facebook’s move towards increased transparency in how the newsfeed ranks content, your audience
has more control than ever over what they see.
Let people know that when they follow or like your Page, they can also check the “See First” preference to
let the algorithm know that your posts are important to them.
Of course, this tactic works best when you are consistently producing content that resonates with your
audience and directly supports your Facebook marketing strategy.
- Empower your people to advocate for you
The decline of organic reach has savvy marketers turning to tried-and-true tactics like good old word of
mouth. Except, you know, at scale.
This is certainly the premise behind influencer marketing, but another, possibly even more authentic way
to spread the word is by tapping your brand’s employees.
Whether it’s just you and your dog, or you pay salaries in five different currencies, an employee’s good
word is solid gold. (After all, they’re the ones who know the inside scoop on your brand.)