Facebook turns its feed into a popularity contest

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The social network will promote posts tied to trendy or popular topics

Facebook users will soon start to see more posts higher in their feeds tied to popular events or topics of conversation, with less relevant posts getting pushed further down.

The change comes courtesy of an update to Facebook's news feed algorithm announced Thursday, focused on giving users "more timely stories." It affects posts both from users' friends and from pages to which they're connected.

Facebook wants more of its users to engage on the site when they might be watching the same sports game or TV show -- something that already happens on Twitter -- and then brush their posts under the carpet when the event is over or the topic fizzles out.

Facebook routinely tweaks its news feed algorithm, but this update has the potential to advance the company's efforts in the area of news delivery. It's a departure from the site's roots as a means for solely keeping in touch with family and friends.

The update is built around two changes. First, posts that are related to trending topics will appear higher and faster in the feed, Facebook said. When a friend or a Page to which you're connected posts about something that's currently a hot topic of conversation on the site, the post is more likely to appear higher in the feed.

Facebook users can already get a sense of what's popular on the site by looking at the "trending" topics section in the right-hand column, which Facebook rolled out earlier this year. On Thursday, some of the topics listed included Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, pop singer Gwen Stefani and the video game Final Fantasy XV.

Posts that aren't as relevant to what's hot, in other words, will get less priority.

Secondly, Facebook said it would be considering not just the number of likes that posts receive in determining their placement, but when people choose to like, comment and share. If a lot of people are interacting with a post right after it was posted, but the activity drops off a few hours later, "this suggests the post was most interesting at the time it was posted," Facebook said. As a result, that post would get promoted higher early on and less later.

For people who use Facebook to stay on top of news and events, that could be a nice change. But for others who log in less frequently, they may end up missing out on certain types of posts.

Facebook said it has received feedback that there are some cases in which posts are only interesting at a specific moment.

The changes could help Facebook better compete against Twitter and its ability to deliver the news in real time. But Twitter, at least at the moment, does not use a feed filtering algorithm like Facebook does. Facebook walks a tricky line between connecting people and providing them with information that Facebook deems relevant.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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