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How the Facebook Algorithm Works in 2021 and How to Make it Work for You

Good morning to everyone except for Brian, who just asked the company-wide Slack channel “wow why do our organic Facebook numbers so bad?” Well, Brian, the short answer is the Facebook algorithm. Read on, and we’ll explain.

First, let’s look at some benchmarks.

As of the end of 2020, organic reach is still on the decline. The average reach for an organic Facebook post is down to 5.2%. (For the record, at the end of 2019 it was 5.5%, and the year before that it was 7.7%).

Meanwhile, the average engagement rate in 2020 for an organic Facebook post was 0.25%. That number drops to 0.08% for those of you with more than 100k followers.

These numbers should make everyone feel a little bit better (everyone except for Brian, who should feel sorry for being rude). The algorithm can be pretty tough on branded organic Facebook content.

But every Facebook marketing strategy needs both organic and paid content, which means it’s time to buckle up and figure out what this complex, mysterious galaxy brain wants us social media managers to do.

Fortunately, Facebook just dropped a bunch of new information on the algorithm, so we’re going to fill you in on the latest details.

Bonus: Download a free guide that teaches you how to turn Facebook traffic into sales in four simple steps using Hootsuite.

What is the Facebook algorithm?

The Facebook algorithm decides which posts people see every time they check their Facebook feed, and in what order those posts show up. For its part, Facebook would like to remind us that there is no single algorithm, but rather “multiple layers of machine learning models and rankings,” built to predict which posts will be “most valuable and meaningful to an individual over the long term.”

In other words, instead of presenting every available Facebook post in chronological order, the Facebook algorithm evaluates every post, scores it, and then arranges it in descending order of interest for each individual user. This process happens every time a user—and there are 2.7 billion of them—refreshes their newsfeed.

While we don’t know all the details of how the Facebook algorithm decides what to show people (and what not to show people) we do know that—like all social media recommendation algorithms—one of its goals is to keep people scrolling, so that they see more ads.

What does this mean for brands? When it comes to earning more organic reach, the Facebook algorithm will reward you for posting content that people engage with.

A brief history of the Facebook algorithm

The Facebook algorithm isn’t static; engineers are constantly tinkering with it.

To make its predictions, the algorithm uses thousands of data points, a.k.a. ranking signals. Over the years, ranking signals have been added, removed, and had their importance adjusted, depending on what Facebook thinks users want to see.

Here are some of the more notable changes.

Facebook algorithm timeline

2003-2009

First things first: we all know that Facebook was born in 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg got dumped for being conceited (or at least, that’s what I learned from finally getting around to watching The Social Network).

Non-fictional accounts of Facebook’s history, however, confirm that:

  • The Facebook newsfeed debuted in 2006.
  • The Like button showed up in 2007.
  • In 2009, Facebook premiered a sorting order where the posts with the most Likes got bumped to the top of the feed.

2015

Fast forward a few years to 2015, when Facebook became concerned enough about user experience to start downranking Pages that posted a high volume of overly promotional content. (i.e., organic posts with content identical to ads.)

Also in 2015, Facebook gave users the ability to nudge the algorithm directly: the “See First” feature let users indicate that they’d like a Page’s posts to be prioritized in their feed.

2016

In 2016, Facebook added a “time spent” ranking signal. In other words, it started measuring a post’s value based on the amount of time users spent with it, even if they didn’t like or share it.

Live video was also prioritized, as it was earning 3x more watch time than regular video.

2017

This was the year that Facebook started prioritizing emotional reactions, by weighing reactions (i.e., hearts or the angry face) more than classic Likes.

Another ranking signal was also added for video: completion rate. In other words, videos that keep people watching to the end are shown to more people.

2018

In January 2018, Zuckerberg announced that the Facebook algorithm would now prioritize “posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions.” (This was apparently in response to widespread criticism about Facebook’s negative effects on, you know, the fabric of society as a whole.) The changes were meant to increase the quality of the time people spend on Facebook, and take responsibility for how the platform affects its users’ mental health and overall well-being.

Brands had valid concerns about this shift. Posts from friends, family and Facebook groups were given new weight, over and above organic content from organizations and businesses. To get traction, brands would now need to earn a lot more high-value engagement (eg., comments, reactions, comment replies—and if a post was shared over Messenger to a friend, that counted too).

2019

Updates in 2019 included prioritizing “high-quality, original video” that keeps viewers watching longer than 1 minute, and especially video that holds attention longer than 3 minutes.

Facebook also started bumping up posts and content from “close friends”: i.e., those that people engage with the most, whether that’s by tagging each other in photos or DMing in Messenger.

Meanwhile, Facebook was receiving a lot of criticism on two fronts. First, the algorithm’s role in the spread of dangerous misinformation. According to critics, the 2018 algorithm change increased outrage and divisiveness, political polarization, and promoted misinformation and borderline content. And secondly, critics did not like the techniques or quantity of personal data that Facebook was collecting in order to feed said algorithm.

2020

Facebook announced that it was helping users understand the algorithm, and take control of their own data to give the algorithm better feedback. However, people have been increasingly concerned about their privacy, and for many, “more relevant ads” does not seem like a worthwhile trade-off.

Meanwhile, on the fake news front, in 2020 Facebook announced that its algorithm will now evaluate the credibility and quality of news articles in order to promote substantiated news rather than misinformation.

So where does that leave us today?

How the Facebook algorithm works in 2021

In January 2021, Facebook released new details about its algorithm.

Facebook algorithm graph

Source: Facebook

You can read the technical explanation over here, but here’s the simple version.

How does the Facebook algorithm work?

  1. First, Facebook takes every post available in a user’s network (a.k.a. the “inventory”), and it scores those posts according to predetermined ranking signals, like type of post, recency, et cetera.
  2. Next, it discards posts that a user is unlikely to engage with, based on that user’s past behaviour. It also demotes content that users don’t want to see (i.e., clickbait, misinformation, or content that they’ve indicated they don’t like).
  3. Then, it runs a “more powerful neural network” over the remaining posts to score them in a personalized way. (For example: Mona is 20% likely to watch tutorial videos from her chess Group, but 95% likely to post a heart reaction to a photo of her sister’s new puppy) and ranks them in order of value.
  4. And finally, it arranges a nice cross-section of media types and sources so that a user has an interesting variety of posts to scroll through.

So, what does this tell us about which factors get a post to the top of the feed? The answer is that it depends on whose feed we’re talking about.

Facebook says that it uses thousands of ranking signals. Everything from the speed of a user’s internet connection to whether they prefer to engage by liking or commenting.

Still, over the years Facebook has consistently mentioned the same four ranking signals as the most important when it comes to how high up in the news feed a post appears.

4 Facebook algorithm ranking signals to consider:

Facebook algorithm ranking signals

  • Relationship: Is the post from a person, business, news source or public figure that the user often engages with? (i.e., messages, tags, engages with, follows, etc.)
  • Content type: What type of media is in the post, and which type of media does the user interact with most? (i.e., video, photo, link, etc.)
  • Popularity: How are people who have already seen the post reacting to it? (Especially your friends). Are they sharing it, commenting on it, ignoring it, smashing that angry face?
  • Recency: How new is the post? Newer posts are placed higher.

Of course, most of these signals require that Facebook track its users’ behaviour. Which is where the privacy vs. personalization debate comes up. (Again.)

Finally, in 2021, Facebook continues to make an effort to be transparent with users about their information. For instance, the Access Your Information tool is supposed to help people figure out why they keep seeing ads for Moon Boots. (Perhaps you set your location to … the moon?).

It remains to be seen how the privacy vs. personalization debate will play out. At Hootsuite, we’re optimistic: no good marketer wants to be creepy or annoying, anyway. And even if the vast majority of Facebook users elect to go back to pre-targeting days, both organic and paid content on Facebook will still need to be compelling, informative, entertaining, and inspiring.

So, in the meantime, let’s take a look at how brands can work with the algorithm to optimize their organic reach.

11 tips for working with the Facebook algorithm

Reply to your audience

While your branded content will never truly be able to compete with anyone’s sister’s new puppy, it’s still very important to prioritize building connections with each person in your audience.

Why? Because the algorithm prioritizes posts from Pages that a user has interacted with in the past. This means that bumping up your reply game is key, whether that’s in Messenger or the comments.

If a person has taken the time to talk to your brand, don’t waste the opportunity: make them feel heard, make them smile, or inspire them to screencap it and send it to their groupchat with the single-tear smile emoji.

Pro tip: Whether you’re a solopreneur or you have a whole team of community managers in place, Hootsuite Inbox makes managing these conversations at scale a lot easier.

Get your audience replying to each other

This tip comes from Facebook itself. Apparently, if a post has triggered a lot of conversation among a user’s friends, the algorithm applies “action-bumping logic” to show that post to the user again.

That means that the most interesting conversation-starters get more reach, in the form of second chances.

The algorithm values content that people want to share and discuss with their friends. (Note that this does not mean that the algorithm wants you to inspire strangers to get into flame wars.)

Aim for love more than likes

For the last few years the algorithm has weighed reaction buttons more heavily than a simple Like. So target emotional reactions in your posts: love, caring, laughter, sadness, anger.

If you’re not sure what’s going to resonate with your audience, a social media sentiment analysis is a great place to start.

Post when your audience is online

You’ve heard this one a thousand times, but we have to stress it again, because Facebook keeps stressing it.

Recency is a key signal. The newest posts go to the top of the news feed.

Of course, all is not lost if a user misses a post (for instance, if they load their newsfeed, but then their boss walks by so they close it) there’s still a chance that they’ll see that post when they log in next: the algorithm’s “unread bumping logic” means that unseen posts will be “added to eligible inventory for this session.”

That said, the easiest win on this list is to schedule your posts to go up at the best time for your Facebook audience.

Skip the algorithm using Facebook Stories

The thing about Facebook Stories is that they aren’t part of the newsfeed. They float above it (literally and figuratively) and they aren’t governed by the algorithm. According to Facebook, they’re also effective at driving traffic: 58% of people say they’ve visited a brand’s website for more information after watching a Story.

What kind of Facebook Stories should you post? According to a study by Facebook, people say they want the following from branded Stories:

  • 52% want Stories that are easy to understand
  • 50% want to see new products
  • 46% want tips or advice

Tend to your branded Facebook Group

The advantage of running a business Facebook Group is that, while it does take some care and feeding, it opens another channel for you to connect with your customers, fans, and community.

It’s also a second channel for important content to reach your audience’s eyes. The Facebook algorithm prioritizes posts from Groups users care about, so a post that gets amplified in a popular Group by enthusiasts and fans is likelier to earn more reach.

Go Live on Facebook

In 2020 everyone was stuck at home and Live video on Facebook in the U.S. jumped by 50%.

Because Live video receives 6x more engagement than regular video, the algorithm really, really likes it. For brands, it takes a bit of know-how, but given the fact that virtual events don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, Live video effectively feeds two birds with one scone.

Become a fave

Did you know that every Facebook user has thirty slots for their favourite Pages and people? Those thirty lucky ducks get an automatic free pass from the algorithm.

This is part of Facebook’s push to let people have more control over what they see. Let your followers know that they can prioritize your content in their own timelines, if they want to.

list of favourite pages and people

Pro Tip: This is what is known as a “giant freaking ask,” so approach it with sensitivity. There should be a solid reason for people to prioritize your content, whether that’s because it’s really entertaining, or because it’s truly important they stay informed.

Make longform video that people want to watch

Watch time and completion rate are both crucial ranking signals for video because they indicate that the viewer enjoyed the video enough to watch the whole thing.

In short, the longer you keep people interested, the higher your video post will be scored by the algorithm, and the higher up in the Facebook newsfeed it will appear.

As of 2019, Facebook also scores and prioritizes the following signals for video:

  • Loyalty and intent: videos that people search for and return to;
  • Video length and view duration: videos that people watch past the 1-minute mark, and that are longer than 3 minutes;
  • Originality: videos that aren’t repurposed from other sources and that have plenty of added value.

Which brings us to our next point:

Don’t post clickbait or misinformation or other evil things

Don’t do it!! Don’t do any of these things, or the algorithm will spite you, and also we at Hootsuite will be really disappointed in you.

  • Links to sites that use scraped or stolen content with no added value
  • Borderline content (a.k.a content that is not quite prohibited but probably should be)
  • Misinformation and fake news
  • Misleading health information and dangerous “cures”
  • “Deepfake videos” or manipulated videos flagged as false by third-party fact-checkers

Expand your reach via your best advocates

Your employees have more credibility and authority with the Facebook algorithm than your brand page does. This is because they have more credibility and authority with their own followers and friends.

Plus, they know the inside scoop on your brand, so what they say can be a lot more meaningful than anything your copywriter comes up with. (Sorry, fellow copywriters.)

Here’s a calculator that crunches the numbers on your employees’ potential reach when they’re empowered to share your brand’s content to their own circles.

Manage your Facebook presence alongside your other social media channels using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard you can schedule posts, share video, engage your audience, and measure the impact of your efforts. Try it free today.

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