What does it look like for a massive social media enterprise to go public, fumble its IPO and scramble for ways to look profitable? Just look at Facebook and its EdgeRank algorithm.
EdgeRank is a nifty little equation that Facebook developed to extract the value from all those posts of food that people post to their timelines and determine who would benefit the most from seeing them. There are plenty of great illustrations and explanations of exactly how a post’s EdgeRank score is calculated, so I’ll skip the boring mathematical jargon so we can talk about the implications of EdgeRank and why it sucks.
First of all, EdgeRank has been around a little while. It’s just been in the last couple of months that Facebook really turned up the volume which has caused a lot more buzz about it. For example, a very common estimation of the reach of an update posted to my company’s fan page is somewhere in the ballpark of 3,000 people. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000 fans, so we are “reaching” roughly 23% of them. That is, if you can call ignoring more than three quarters of my audience “reaching” them. And Facebook consider this to be a very engaging post based on the number of likes, comments and shares it collected. Not great, but the post did create a decent level of engagement, so we should be happy, right?
Issue #1: Limited Engagement
And therein lies the first issue: a decent level of engagement. Companies and marketers have flocked to Facebook because it presents an opportunity to interact and engage with an audience of people who have explicitly opted in to receive updates from them.
If someone decides to “Like” a fan page, they are specifically requesting a higher level of engagement with that company and expect to start seeing some updates show up in their personal news feeds. Facebook’s decision to determine a ranked value of each post blocks a good number of updates that people have already determined have value to them. In my case, approximately 10,778 (or 77%) people from my audience are not receiving updates the updates they have signed up for. That’s a massive and inexcusable chunk to ignore.
Issue #2: Promoted Posts are Worthless by Definition
The second thing to notice about Facebook’s use of EdgeRank is that it is a shameless and thinly veiled attempt to monetize content posted to the social network. Even though EdgeRank determines a value for each updated posted to a timeline, it offers the ability to flip off the algorithm in order to reach more people by creating what they call a Promoted Post.
In other words, for a price, you can tell Facebook to display your update to the same people they determined would find the update useless in the first place.
Did you catch that? They want you to buy the trash out of the dumpster!
I’m certainly no expert on Facebook and have no access to the boardroom meetings happening behind the scenes, but I’m inclined to believe Promoted Posts have almost nothing to do with creating valuable content and rich interactions in the Open Graph and almost everything to do with making Facebook look better to Wall Street.
The Bottom Line: This Hurts Everyone
Honestly, I love the idea of determining content value and displaying it in order of priority and Facebook is far from the first to try it out. In fact, EdgeRank is just a variation of the PageRank algorithm that maintains Google’s dominance of the search market and Twitter has been experimenting with and expanding its Discover tool to unearth tweets that would have otherwise been lost in the average user’s stream.
What makes Facebook’s attempt to find value so disheartening is that it actually interferes with the way people discover and engage on the social network. Whereas Google and Facebook merely surface the best to the top and create discovery, Facebook fully leaves about three quarters of people in the dark just to make a buck. It’s intrusive and damaging to the social experience that people expect from Facebook.
Again, I have no exclusive insight into Facebook as a company and don’t own a mirror ball to predict the future, but it’s hard for me to imagine this helping Facebook in any way, even financially. I believe the damage to the brand as a result of stifling social interaction has the possibility of being much greater than any short-term (if any) gains they get out of trying to monetize their content this way. At best, they make a few bucks. At worst, people flock away from the network because it’s no longer an effective platform.
How does that algorithm sound to you?