Facebook Aims to Scrub Clickbait From News Feed

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Facebook last week announced a new move to fight clickbait in the News Feed: downranking links from Web domains and Facebook Pages that consistently post clickbait headlines.

Those that stop posting clickbait no longer will be downranked.

Users who post links that lead to a clickbait domain on their personal Facebook page also could have their posts downgraded, according to Facebook.

The latest adjustment is an extension of Facebook's earlier efforts to reduce the distribution of clickbait posts.

"We're seeing websites and Pages using new techniques to create clickbait and [are] updating how we detect clickbait accordingly," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by company rep Caitlin Hudspeath.

Facebook has built a system that identifies phrases commonly used in clickbait headlines and traces them to the source. Guidelines include whether the headline withholds information that would help the reader understand the article's content, and whether the headline exaggerates the article's content to the extent that it misleads readers.

The ranking update doesn't impact ads, Facebook said.

The new system "should help strengthen user engagement on the platform and position Facebook to be a primary source of legitimate news for their 1.71 billion active users per month," said Cindy Zhou, a principal analyst at Constellation Research.

"The longer users stay on the platform, the higher [their] chances of viewing more ads and, thus, [increasing] revenue for Facebook," she told the E-Commerce Times.

"Folks will game around this," predicted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"Users will continue to lose trust in headlines until [Facebook] puts in place a solution that can look at the behavior and intelligently block clickbait efforts before they hurt users," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Clickbait creators may come up with creative headlines to defeat the system, "but you'll find they'll be much more curtailed," predicted Mike Goodman, a research director at Strategy Analytics.

"They'll either become more sensational, which is easy to handle," he told the E-Commerce Times, "or they'll become less sensational, which means Facebook is winning."

Advertisers this year are expected to lose US$7.2 billion worldwide due to ad fraud, according to a study conducted jointly by the Association of National Advertisers and White Ops.

Researchers collected data from nearly 10 billion online advertising impressions across 1,300 campaigns that 49 ANA members conducted from Aug.1 through Sept. 30 last year.

"Clickbait is basically fraud. It's in the best interest of Facebook as well as the rest of the industry to minimize fraud, which is a major problem for digital advertising," Strategy Analytics' Goodman said.

"This is something of a win-win scenario," he remarked. "It ultimately does improve the user experience, and Facebook gets something out of this. Like most corporations, Facebook is in it for the profit -- that's what commerce is all about."

The issue "is more about user experience, and by making this change, Facebook is looking for users to stay on the social platform longer, which can lead to higher ad revenue," said Constellation's Zhou. "Legitimate publishers will welcome the change, as they likely had their content buried by the noise of clickbait stories."

Brands "want to associate themselves with platforms that provide them relevant buyers," she pointed out. Clickbait ads choking the News Feed "leads to poor user experience, which can cause [users] to disassociate themselves from legitimate ads."

On the downside, the move might revive the specter of censorship first raised this spring by allegations that Facebook's Trending Topics feature had an anticonservative bias, Zhou suggested. Still, Facebook's "doing a good job of being transparent by posting what they're looking for in their algorithm."

Like many other attempts to rid the Web of bad actors, "this will be like whack-a-mole," said Enderle.

"It would be better to focus on user behavior and help users flag and report clickbait attempts," he suggested. "This would go to the heart of the issue in a sustaining way."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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