November saw record traffic for a number of news outlets and publishers, with some editors citing a large increase in social referrals from Facebook in particular.
At Metro, social media and community manager Richard Moynihan said social referrals had been steadily increasing throughout the year, in part due to a new editorial focus on shareable content, but with significant spikes attributed to Facebook.
"For Facebook alone we've had a 168 per cent increase, or 2.6 times, from August to October," he told Journalism.co.uk. "For August to November, that goes up to 442 per cent increase, or nearly 5.5 times. So November was a really big month for us."
Facebook admitted they had been experimenting with news sites, prioritising articles from news organisations and publishers in people's newsfeeds and claiming that average referral traffic had increased by 170 per cent between October 2012 and October 2013.
Newswhip, a social media analysis platform, has also been conducting surveys into how readers and users have been interacting with outlets and publishers on Facebook, with many organisations seeing the number of interactions more than double between October and November.
But what does this mean for publishers and news outlets, and how can they take advantage of the changes to better give their readers what they are looking for?
At the BBC, social news editor Mark Frankel said that one of the more popular posts to the BBC News Facebook page from the last year had involved pictures or video.
One post in particular – a video of an oarfish that washed up on the West coast of America – reached more than a million people on Facebook, said Frankel, and had "thousands and thousands of shares, likes and comments associated with it too".
A BBC News video of the oarfish found on the Californian coast
Most organisations dream of such figures but, to put it into perspective, the BBC News Facebook page currently has 3.2 million likes, meaning the oarfish post reached roughly a third of their fans.
Although he admitted the BBC were not the only news organisation to be talking about the event on social media, he believed video played a big role in how popular that post became.
"There is clearly something around sharing video on Facebook and I also happen to know from talking to people at Facebook, and talking to colleagues working on other pages, that Facebook are prioritising video in their algorithm and how they are pushing content to fans," he said.
"So if you choose to embed a video on your Facebook page and write it up nicely and present it effectively the chances are that that will be pushed to a greater extent than a text post or a simple thumbnail picture post."
In early December two software engineers at Facebook, Varun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, gave a little more insight into how the changes at Facebook could affect publishers.
"After people read a story, they are unlikely to go back and find that story again to see what their friends were saying about it," read the post, "and it wouldn't bump up in News Feed. With this update stories will occasionally resurface that have new comments from friends."
So articles and stories that are going to inspire debate and engage readers to the level where they want to comment on the post and talk about it more is going to mean the post will continue to resurface in their friends' newsfeeds, giving the post and the publication on the whole more exposure.Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favourite sports team or shared interests, to the latest memeVarun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, Facebook
Post more regularly
Buzzfeed has always had a focus on Facebook as being their main source of traffic, said Buzzfeed UK editor Luke Lewis, so testing what works has been a priority since the beginning. In the past, he said, Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm had restricted how often people could post to Facebook.
"Until recently the advice I always gave was that you can't post more than five times a day because the engagement will go down and you'll become invisible in people's newsfeeds," he said. "So publishers were kind of obsessed with that but now it doesn't seem to be a problem."
Don't scrimp on quality
"Why are we doing this?," continued the post from Kacholia and Ji. "Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favourite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme."
Moynihan has noticed the same pattern with his work, meaning that quality posts rather than 'clickbait' headlines are going to perform better and reap bigger returns in the long run.
"What hasn't happened is that Facebook is now sending more traffic to everybody," he said. "People are probably seeing more proportional traffic but it's not now the case that everybody gets the kind of traffic we're seeing or the kind of traffic that people who are doing this really well are seeing.
"What it means is there's more traffic to be had but the people posting the best content – the most engaging content – building up that engaged community over time are probably building up the highest results out of this."
Creating quality content is a given for many publishers, but there are others who try to "game" the system in a similar way to SEO in the past, said Lewis.
Rather than re-posting content from other sites with new headlines, as he said some "viral" publishers are wont to do, "publishers need to focus on growing content that is just good and high quality and entertaining rather than trying to game it".We recognise that, increasingly, people are consuming news on mobile and on tabletMark Frankel, BBC News
And Facebook itself will soon begin weeding out the quality from the viral content.
"Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile," wrote Kacholia and Ji.
Speaking of which...
At the BBC, Frankel has become distinctly aware of how Facebook is not only becoming a more important platform for distribution, but how much mobile use is a factor within that.
"We recognise that, increasingly, people are consuming news on mobile and on tablet," he said, "and are not coming to the BBC in a traditional way, sitting in front of a television set or a radio receiver or going to a website on desktop.
"We need to be innovative and creative about how we produce content for our audience and social media has become absolutely essential in that environment and Facebook within that is a major player."
In the US, 78 per cent of Facebook users are mobile, while a December 2012 study from Ofcom reported that the UK used "smartphones and tablets to access the web more heavily than any of the world's leading economies", largely due to social media use.
So stories that can be easily consumed on a mobile device are likely to get higher levels of engagement and ultimately divert more traffic back to the site in the long run.
Mark Frankel, Richard Moynihan and Luke Lewis were all interviewed for a podcast looking into how updates to Facebook's algorithm was affecting publishers.
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