Facebook’s algorithm is terrible at surfacing breaking news, often showing urgent posts hours or even days later when more facts have since emerged or the story has changed. This has made Twitter the default home for this content, but that position has weakened since Twitter implemented its own relevancy algorithm that brings up old tweets. Facebook isn’t ready to make any changes to how the algo handles real-time information, but it’s giving publishers a red “Breaking” label they can add to try to draw reader attention to News Feed posts meant to be seen now.
Now Facebook is expanding its Breaking news tag test that started in November to 50 additional publishers in North America, Latin America, Europe and Australia. Publishers can add the tag to one post per day plus another five per month, and set it to appear for fifteen minutes to six hours. Users can report misuse of the tag with the drop-down arrow, and Facebook says it will expand the test to more publishers if it goes well.
The tag has no direct impact on a post’s News Feed ranking. It would make sense to show it more frequently while the tag is live and then less afterwards, and Facebook says it’s considering some ranking consequence. But just the visual cue has led to boosts in engagement, including a 4 percent lift in clickthrough rate, 7 percent lift in Likes, 4 percent lift in Comments, and 11 percent lift in Shares. Publishers can see how their tagged posts did in a special analytics section.
If Facebook figures out a way to properly surface breaking news while it’s happening, it could become more of a destination when big things happen the way Twitter is. That could help Facebook earn ad views, stimulate sharing as people offer their reactions to news, and drive the kind of meaningful interactions between users that it’s now preferencing over viral video content.
“We’ve been pleased to collaborate with Facebook to elevate breaking news on their platform and are excited – but not surprised – to see readers respond the way they have” said The Washington Post’s lead product manager Dave Merrell after testing the tag. “Delivering accurate information quickly has always been core to our mission, and in an overwhelming news cycle we want our readers to be able to easily identify when there’s new reporting.”
Facebook has tinkered with real-time content before. Its rivalry with Twitter heated up in 2011 when Facebook launched its own asymmetrical “follow” feature, since renamed “subscribe”. In 2013, Facebook tested a “Chronological By Actor” News Feed tweak that would make sure rapid-fire posts by a certain friend would show up in reverse chronological order. This way even with other posts scattered in between, users wouldn’t see someone’s posts about the start, middle, and end of a sporting event out of order. But Facebook never got too serious about figuring out real-time news, seeing Twitter as a largely vanquished foe.
Now, driving more referral traffic to the stories that matter could help Facebook start to repair its frayed relationship with publishers who felt blindsided after it decided in January to show less news all together. If Facebook wants to keep users loyal, it can’t just show the best content. It needs to understand what’s most important in the moment.