Life With Facebook

Above you can see a chart of Gawker's traffic (in "U.S. people," the Quantcast statistic we use to calculate targets) over the last six months.

In June, at the time the site's third highest-trafficked month ever, just under 15.1 million "U.S. people"[1] visited the site. Through August—technically, over the last 30 days, so including the last three days of July—we beat that figure by over 150,000, putting us at about 30,000 people away from the site's second-biggest month of all time.

Between those two months, in July, about 10.8 million people ("people") read ("read") the site ("the site"). That's a sudden and unprecedented drop of about 25 percent—four million people. What happened?

(For one thing, July—MH17 and T.G.I. Friday's endless apps aside—was "cucumber season," the dead zone for news. And August has been horrifically news-intensive in areas in which we typically excel. But four million! Jesus!)

From January to May, around a third of our traffic came through Facebook each month (from a low of 30.65 percent of sessions in March to a high of 37.65 percent in April). But in July only 23.61 percent of sessions came from Facebook. Wuh-oh! *Tugs at collar* (Other sites in our peer group, and at Gawker Media, also saw drops, though not quite as dramatic as ours.)

One problem with the Facebook algorithm is that it's prone to feedback loops: It rewards few clicks with fewer opportunities for clicks, and so on. A bad month gets worse; a good month gets better.[2]

But with a dramatic drop the obvious inference is that the Facebook algorithm—the somewhat hidden notation from which the Facebook newsfeed takes its dancing steps—changed. Facebook doesn't like to go into very much detail about changes to its algorithm, but a dive into the analytics of our Facebook page comes up with this chart showing daily new likes:

Life With Facebook

It seems clear that sometime in mid-May, Facebook dramatically changed the way it recommended publisher's pages. This change is the most likely (or at least the only visible) culprit for our diminished inbound traffic. [3]

Facebook won't confirm or deny; when asked about specific changes, the company defaults to "continuous updates to the news feed" boilerplate. This is understandable. The most recent public word came a few days ago, when the company announced through its newsroom that it was "announcing some improvements to News Feed [...] to reduce click-baiting headlines." Click-bait, as the company defines it,

is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed.

This definition was widely understood to mean that Facebook would be seeking to kill "the curiosity gap"—"You Won't Believe What This Pregnant Grandmother Told an Abortion Protestor"-type headlines. (There are other definitions of "click bait." One particularly popular among Gawker media commenters is "posts that I don't like.") But reading a little further it's clear that the curiosity gap isn't going away:

One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn't find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.

Upworthy, to name one prominent example, makes frequent use of headlines that fulfill Facebook's exact definition of "click-bait." But people spend an enormous amount of time on Upworthy pages (most of which are videos) once they've clicked through. The change seems mostly directed at spammy fly-by-night Facebook meme pages one step removed from "She Wore WHAT To School?!"—until you get here:

Another factor we will use to try and show fewer of these types of stories is to look at the ratio of people clicking on the content compared to people discussing and sharing it with their friends. If a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click Like, or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn't click through to something that was valuable to them.

This runs counter to my own personal experience: I tend to encounter lots of stories on Facebook that I click through to (through to...which...I click?), find "valuable," but don't bother engaging with further on Facebook. But Facebook is the single most important website on the internet for putting Gawker in front of new readers. If we're not compelling our readers to "like" our stories on Facebook, we're missing out on traffic we've come to depend on.

Speaking of which, please "like" us on Facebook:


[1]We should stipulate very early on that these numbers bear at best a glancing relationship to the actual number of different people who read a website in a given month. Nevertheless they provide a generally agreed upon foundation for several industries.

[2]Ask our friends at Deadspin, who just turned in the best-ever month in Gawker Media history—

Life With Facebook

—thanks not just to their huge hit "A Compilation Of People Fucking Up The Ice Bucket Challenge" (at nearly 16,000,000 views, the third-largest post in Gawker Media history), but to the increased Facebook activity that the post generated.

[3]Why did it take until July for us to feel the change? Around the same time that our page stopped growing, Facebook was sending a four-year-old post about vajazzling to the top of our charts, and it wasn't until the dust had cleared that we realized our inbound traffic had been significantly cut.