Facebook changes News Feed algorithm to reduce clickbait

Facebook is making it harder for people to grab your attention by making a false promise or not providing an answer in a headline.

zuckerberg in china reuters
Credit: Reuters/Shu Zhang

Every headline you read is clickbait. No, seriously. They are all designed to provide enough information for you to click and read an article.

You might say this headline is clickbait: MEN WALK ON THE MOON

That appeared in 1969 as the headline on the front page of The New York Times. Ever since, journalists like myself have tried to craft compelling headlines to capture attention.

Then, there’s a different category altogether. If a headline makes a promise like “read this and you will live forever” it’s a ploy, a come-on. It is intended to make you click but doesn't deliver any worthwhile content. It feels like a sham, because reading any article on any topic will not make you live forever. The body of the article is false. In 1969, astronauts did walk on the moon, and it was a momentous occasion. It was worth the hype.

Now, Facebook has decided to crackdown on headlines that are purposefully misleading. In truth, the headline above could easily pop up in your feed along with baby photos and quips about The Donald and could show up in your feed when you scroll through posts because it summarizes what this article is about. But if it said "You won't believe what Facebook is doing to your news feed" it would not appear.

Why is this such an issue? For most of us, Facebook is a good snapshot of what is going on in the world. We scan through our feeds and check Trending Topics to find out about current events and interesting news. A new algorithm change will now look for headlines that make a false claim or that do not provide the answer (like “You’ll never guess who tripped on the red carpet…”).

Even the headline I used for this story could be flagged if it left out a few details, although it’s almost impossible to craft a headline that provides all of the answers. It could have said: “Facebook is reducing clickbait by tweaking algorithms that spot headlines that make false claims or don’t provide enough information” but that would be somewhat ridiculous (unless you like Quartz, which has unusually long headlines).

In my view, the best headlines get right to the point. They don’t try to lure you with a promise. A better headline might be: “Facebook plans to reduce clickbait in the news feed” because you know exactly what the article will contain. The best headlines reduce ambiguity. They help the read know if the article is worth reading.

Another reason this issue keeps coming up is because there is so much noise. A marketer recently told me that almost every company and entrepreneur is now a content creator, which means every company and entrepreneur is thinking about headlines. The best way to garner attention, though, is to write something worthwhile, to deliver on the promise of the headline. Like porn and racism, we know it when we see it. There’s a sixth sense that a headline is trying to trick you.

The change could improve the quality of the feed, mostly because there are so many tricks that are intended to provide a partial answer.

Do you agree? Should Facebook keep tweaking their algorithms and figure out how to improve the news feed? I’m curious if you have a better choice for a headline for this article. If you do, post in comments or on social media.

Be careful, though. It might not appear on Facebook.

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