Facebook starts counting time spent when ranking links in people’s feeds

Facebook will start counting time spent when deciding which links to put in people's mobile feeds and stop showing so many posts from the same pages.

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The more time people spend on Facebook, the more money Facebook stands to make. So to make sure people are spending as much time as possible checking out the content in their Facebook feeds, Facebook is going to make time an even more important factor when deciding what links to put in people’s feeds. And it’s freshening up those feeds so that they don’t always show posts from the same old pages and start boring people.

First Facebook’s news-feed ranking algorithm will now guess at how long you’ll spend checking out an article on your phone when deciding which posts to put in your feed. Facebook’s algorithm already considers the amount of time people spending looking at the posts in their feeds, so now it’s extending that to the third-party pages that those posts may link to.

The change will apply to any third-party link that can be displayed in Facebook’s mobile in-app browser or as an Instant Article: New Yorker features, YouTube videos, Reddit threads, PodcastOne episodes, etc. But it will only factor in when you’re using Facebook’s mobile app because Facebook can only count time spent when you’re using Facebook’s browser. And it will only apply to organic posts, not ads.

The result of adding time spent as a ranking factor seems simple. The more time Facebook thinks people spend on a link, the more likely it is to show you that link. Quality content: 1. Clickbait: 0. Just like when Facebook started penalizing links that people clicked on and almost immediately clicked out of because the corresponding content didn’t deliver on the headline’s promise.

That simplicity could be a problem. Publishers, brands or anyone else with their own site could try to game Facebook’s latest algorithm factor. They could load their pages up with a bunch of ad-tech scripts so they take more time to load. Or they could bloat their articles with animated GIFs and unnecessary paragraphs to get people to stick around longer.

But Facebook has a couple measures in place to prevent sites from trying to take advantage of its time-spent ranking factor. Slow-loading pages won’t receive a boost because Facebook only counts time spent once a page has fully loaded. And Facebook will cap time spent at an undisclosed threshold so that the average Facebook news feed doesn’t start to resemble Longform’s home page. A Facebook spokesperson declined to say what exactly that maximum time-spent threshold is.

Factoring in the time people spend on a page isn’t the only change Facebook is making when deciding which links to show where in people’s feeds. The company is also cutting back how often it shows people “several posts in a row from the same source in their News Feed,” according to Facebook’s blog post published on Thursday announcing the two news feed changes. In other words, if you normally see a bunch of posts from BuzzFeed crowding the top of your Facebook feed, you might now only see one at first and won’t see the others until you scroll further down the feed. This way Facebook can make sure you’re getting more variety in your feed. Otherwise you might get bored by it and turn to Twitter or Snapchat to spice things up.

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About the author

Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat's ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon's ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube's programming strategy, Facebook's ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking's rise; and documented digital video's biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed's branded video production process and Snapchat Discover's ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands' early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo's and Google's search designs and examine the NFL's YouTube and Facebook video strategies.

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