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Decoding the social media algorithms in 2020. The ultimate guide

8 Mins read

Unwrapping the riddles in a mystery.

We now live in a world where bite-sized chunks of mathematical data have become central to how we live our daily lives. When you search online, scroll through your social feeds or receive song recommendations from Spotify, you are being guided by an algorithm that understands your consumption habits perhaps more than you do.

Each day you are influenced by an algorithm in guiding your decisions and choices.

Mathematical calculations are influencing your purchasing decisions on Amazon, your flight in an airport and even whether your supermarket has your favorite cereal in stock.

As if by magic, you may be completely unaware of when an algorithm is at work. They act seamlessly between yourself and the task at hand. And while this might sound sinister, algorithms are, by and large, there to help you.

Social media algorithms are becoming central to everything you do. Often misunderstood and occasionally inaccurate but always on and always learning.

How you and most of society consume news and information can be attributed directly to algorithms.

Whether searching on Google or scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, the news and information presented come from a mathematical equation based on two factors:

Algorithmic quality – the quality standard of the content available.

Your previous history – the actions and reactions you’ve taken to specific chunks of content in the past.

This means whether by design or by personal choice, social media algorithms have allowed us to create filters to see content we want and remove everything else we don’t.

Coupled with recent claims that algorithms can be biased it’s important that they are understood and when they are at work.

Perhaps even more so since people are more likely to follow advice when they are being told that it came from an algorithm rather than a human according to a Harvard Business School study.

This has lead to articles providing guidance on how to think for yourself when algorithms control what you read.

While this guide does not claim to lay out the exact inner-workings of the social media algorithms, it tries to include everything we know about them that is publicly available.

What’s presented here is based on a combination of publicly disclosed information by the social networks, third-party research, some basic assumptions and a little common sense.

Secondly, the diagrams presented are not visual representations of the algorithms. That would be impossible. Instead, they are more Decision Problems rather than algorithmic equations.

Use them as a process and checklist you can follow to ensure your content and messaging has the best opportunity to receive maximum impact.

Now in its third iteration, this guide is updated and expanded upon each year.

Social media algorithms for information and news flow

The most influential kind of algorithm is one that controls the flow of information people receive. It helps shape their thinking and understanding of news and events. Perhaps there is no greater power than being able to control the kind of information a group of people consume.

Over the years, social media platforms have become central to how people both communicate and receive information.

Whether that’s keeping in touch with long-distance family members, organizing events, networking, running a business or keeping up with the news.

Social networks have evolved from being a place where people connect to an information distribution platform.  

Many people now depend on social media algorithms to be informed and to keep up-to-date on news and events.

In fact, research by the Pew Research Center found that in 2017 two thirds of American adults reported getting at least ‘some of their news’ from social media.

As more people have started consuming information on social platforms, many publishers have taken advantage of the viral effect they can receive by having their content spread across them.

Indeed many publishers built their entire business models based on the viral effect platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn create. The content is optimized for shareability using persuasive techniques to create an emotional response in readers.

Understanding how social media algorithms work empowers us to know when we are perhaps being manipulated by these publishers.

Content creators – brands and individuals alike – need to understand how best to work with the social media algorithms to generate the best return for their content creating efforts.

Time and again we see content go down a black hole because no consideration is given to a social media algorithm. What works on one social network may not work for another which is why it is important to understand how each algorithm works to create the content to suit it.

Not that the social networks give us the ‘secret sauce’ to their algorithms. Most are notoriously hush about the inner workings of these often-complex mathematical equations.

They do, however, provide tidbits of advice and information on occasion either through their official channels or by their employees on social media.

The changing tide of the social media algorithms

In the early days of social networking, the intention was to connect people online who may not have been able to do so in real life.

Family and friends on Facebook; colleagues and work acquaintances on LinkedIn and anybody and anyone on Twitter.

As they grew and as each platform explored ways to monetize they began to diversify their offerings. News distribution was a key component of this.

The social networks, and especially Facebook, began to see themselves as a conduit for news distribution. They changed their algorithms to suit this shift especially as more people began to receive their news via them.

News publications worked on growing their audiences on these platforms and increasingly made content that was both snackable and shareable.

In 2015, Facebook surpassed Google as the number one traffic source for news sites solidifying its place as a social networking behemoth.

Then something happened.

Clickbait articles, fake news, bots, trolls and political warfare began to dominate the platform. The Facebook algorithm, perhaps the most famous algorithm in the world, was at the center of it.

People started reporting higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness after visiting Facebook and Twitter. They had turned into purveyors of outrage news and instead of connecting people they had created divisive groups.

Since 2018, the tide has changed once again for the social media algorithms.

Facebook announced that it intends to start prioritizing “meaningful conversations’ instead of news articles.

Twitter is killing automation on the platform meaning any bots that create fake engagement via likes, follows or retweets will be quashed.

LinkedIn is prioritizing status updates by its professional users who dare to be more personal and open about their lives.

All of which are prioritizing content native to its platform over links to third-party sites.

In 2018, search was a bigger referrer to news sites over social for the first time since 2015.

This is the beginning of a new era in social networking. One that we’ve seen before and one that is more about human connection as opposed to information consumption.

It’s one reason why the influencer marketing industry is on the rise. Brands are looking to work with social media influencers who have developed deep connections with their audience.

The algorithmic levers have been pulled once again. For many publishers, it has meant the end of traffic flow and in some cases the end of their entire business model.

For brands looking to engage in social networks, it requires a mindset shift.

It’s about building a community, not an audience. It’s about making content conversational instead of attention-grabbing. It’s ultimately about taking a more honest approach when engaging with people on social networks. 

Why we need to understand social media algorithms

A lack of understanding of how social media algorithms work is like driving in the dark with no lights on.

It’s possible and you may get to your destination but it’s an unnecessary risk.

In a nutshell, you need to understand them for the following reasons:

  • Impact: To ensure that your content creates the greatest impact possible
  • ROI: To ensure the time and effort spent publishing to these platforms has the greatest return
  • Reputation: To become a long-term trusted source of information for the algorithms
  • Wider societal impact: We need to be able to ‘fight fire with fire’ to prevent false information spreading online

The social networks are constantly changing, refining and testing their algorithms. It’s important we keep up with them.

Ready? Then let’s begin and dive into the social media algorithms.

Facebook Algorithm

Facebook has perhaps the most famous (or infamous) social media algorithm in the world.

It has been at the epicentre of political controversy over the last few years, not just in the US and Europe but across the world.

It is constantly evolving as Facebook looks to provide more value to users and more eyeballs for advertising spend and it has perhaps, along with the Google search algorithm, the main reason why layoffs continue in traditional and internet media.

Formerly known as EdgeRank, it is fair to say that the Facebook algorithm has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons over the last few years.

It’s a morbid situation: Organic reach is almost dead, the news feed is dying and clickbait and fake news are on their last legs.

Organic reach is almost dead

In 2014, Facebook page owners started noticing a decline in organic reach. While numbers vary, the average organic reach dropped from around 16% to 6.5%. A page with 10,000 fans would only reach just 650 of them.

Page owners with more than 500,000 fans saw an event steeper drop to around 2%.

The reason for this, Facebook said, was because there was simply more content being created on the platform and people should see only the most relevant to them.

Since then, Facebook has continued to tweak the algorithm further decreasing a page’s organic reach further.

Around the same time, its advertising revenues on the Facebook platform have almost hit their peak meaning it will soon depend on Instagram for the majority of its revenue growth.

A Facebook page today is more for running an advertising campaign from rather than anything else.

News feed is dying, long live stories

Stories have changed the social media landscape and it’s the news feed that’s taking the hit.

The ephemeral pieces of content we see from our friends, family and influencers on Instagram, Snapchat and increasingly Facebook are what consumers want most.

The news feed is a relic of the past and while it’s not going away anytime soon it will no longer have the same impact it has had on society again.

Facebook itself sees stories as the future and says one billion of them are shared on its platform every day but has so far not being able to monetize them as much as its other ad inventory.

Nevertheless, stories are the where the action is and never underestimate Facebook’s ability to monetize.

The Facebook facilitation of fake news and clickbait headlines is ending

To ‘go viral’ on Facebook used to be easy. Create a piece of content that people will share and, assuming you had decent distribution methods, it was guaranteed to spread across the Facebook platform.

It’s what BuzzFeed based its business model on with other publications such as Unilad following suit. Content was engineered to be ‘clickable’ and ‘shareable’ by tapping into social psychology triggers that would evoke emotions of either love, humour, fear or anger.

This strategy was of course copied in all kinds of unscrupulous ways often using content that was completely fake.

The viral element of the old Facebook algorithm played a fundamental part in the 2016 Elections and Brexit in the UK. Both of which were largely played out on Facebook and both susceptible to fake news from fake websites and even clickbait from reputable news sources.

While the Facebook platform still has a propensity to facilitate the sharing of fake news, the company is improving its ability to capture and eradicate it by recently removing 14 million pieces of terrorist content, setting up an ‘Election War Room’ to safeguard elections all around the world and by requiring users who run websites and political ad campaigns to verify their identity.

Facebook user habits have also changed when it comes to sharing news. Concerned about privacy, they prefer to use messaging apps WhatsApp and Messenger (both Facebook Inc. owned) to share and discuss news with close friends and acquaintances according to one study.

The new Facebook algorithm…

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