Facebook’s war on click-bait risks collateral damage

Facebook, in its ongoing effort to de-clutter users’ news feeds, will now start punishing publishers that deal in “click-bait.” But the way that Facebook plans to determine click-bait might incidentally hurt publishers that efficiently deliver news.

Facebook will measure click-bait by “how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook,” according to a blog post about the change. That is, if a Facebook user clicks on an article shared in his news feed and spends only seconds reading that article, then Facebook will deem it click-bait.

“If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable,” Facebook’s blog post says. “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.”

On its face, this sounds reasonable. Time spent is a popular, if crude, measure of engagement. But in practice, it stands to hurt publishers that produce short but non-click-bait stories.

Sites like Atlantic Media’s Quartz and USA Today’s For the Win are optimized to be consumed on mobile, for example, where session times are shorter. Quartz stories typically run at approximately 400 words. For the Win even aims at all of its stories to be 300 words or fewer.

The Onion, the news source of choice for Facebook users, frequently publishes stories fewer than 200-words long, such as this 153-word story from late August about a human rights atrocity in North Korea.

And even sites like Grantland and The Verge, both of which pride themselves on producing “longform” (i.e. magazine feature-length) stories, supplement those efforts with a daily output of shorter blog posts. Time spent is hardly the only indicator of “quality.”

Facebook’s assumption is that a story’s value is directly correlated to the amount of time it takes to read it, which is especially problematic for publishers optimized to mobile, where session times are inherently shorter. The average time spent per visit on Facebook is less than half as long on mobile (5 minutes) than on desktop (13.2 minutes), according to ComScore.

Facebook did not return a request for comment.

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which tracks how much time readers spend on stories, wrote in a blog post that publishers specializing in short-form storytelling should not be worried (although his reasoning is a bit counterintuitive).

The depressing truth of the Internet is that short-form content hangs out on the same end of the distribution curve of the Internet as long-form when it comes to attention.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the majority of pageviews on the Internet get less than 15 seconds of engagement. Facebook is looking for those incidences when people come “straight back” to the feed, suggesting that the threshold they’ve set for clickbait may be rather low.

One potential beneficiary, ironically, is Upworthy, which despite constantly being criticized as a click-bait peddler, has routinely touted how long its visitors spend on its stories. Indeed, the site gauges readership in “attention minutes,” which factors in the amount of time readers spend on stories.

“We welcome a focus from Facebook on engaged time,” Upworthy spokeswoman Michele Clarke wrote to Digiday. “Upworthy is driving well over 100 million attention minutes per month and 300,000 attention minutes per post published to Facebook.”

Still, Facebook deciding to act as an arbiter of public information is troubling to some. That the ice bucket challenge was so much more popular on Facebook than stories about Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, has raised concerns about Facebook’s role as a news provider.



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