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Taking advantage of the Social Network algorithms

Author's avatar By Marie Page 11 Mar, 2015
Essential Essential topic

An introduction to getting visibility in social streams by understanding the algorithms used by Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest

Google was the first major search engine to use a sophisticated algorithm to determine the relevancy of web pages in search results. Their ‘PageRank’ algorithm – together with a ton of other SEO ranking signals – became synonymous with the search engine and rendered many of the incumbents useless. Goodbye Excite and Lycos.

Most social media marketers will be aware of the mysterious and ever-changing ‘EdgeRank’ algorithm employed by Facebook. I have written before on Smart Insights on the ranking / visibility factors for EdgeRank in Facebook’s news feed ranking algorithm which determines whether your post is worthy of dissemination and to whom. EdgeRank is also responsible for the way in which older (but apparently popular) updates often appear on top of newer pieces of content on news feed.

EdgeRank is not dissimilar to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is one of many signals the search engine uses to determine relevancy of web pages in search results.

Despite much talk in recent months of a drop in reach on Facebook, many brands remain ignorant of the factors which influence EdgeRank for reach or otherwise. Facebook doesn’t provide any information about how EdgeRank works (unlike Google which does) but the three commonly accepted factors at its core on are:

  • Affinity – how close the relationship is between the user and the content/brand/source
  • Weight – what type of action is being taken on the content, how important Facebook considers content type (video, photo, link etc) to be
  • Decay – how recent the content is

These legacy metrics now influence a myriad of complex calculations that produce a very personalised news feed. Last year, Lars Backstrom, Engineering Manager for News Feed Ranking at Facebook estimated that there are as many as“100,000 individual weights in the model that produces News Feed.” He says that “The easiest analogy is to search engines and how they rank web pages. It’s like comparing the Google of today with Alta Vista. Both Google and Bing have a lot of new signals, like personalization, that they use. It’s more sophisticated than the early days of search, when the words on a page were the most important thing.”

What does this mean for marketing on Facebook?

To maximise the impact of your organic content, social media marketers need to stay informed of the latest changes to EdgeRank. Currently video posts are highly favoured with photos carrying the least weight. Brands that post much promotional content, or spammy memes are seeing all their content penalised.

Being aware of what is likely to cause your audience to engage (click, like, comment, share – or conversely hide or report content) will also help you create posts that have higher weight and affinity.

Posting at times when your audience is online is essential (and there is no golden rule to this – it is different for each brand despite what the so-called gurus tell you).

Experimenting, going through your Facebook Insights data in detail is also essential. One of the things I teach on myAdvanced Facebook Masterclasses is how to do the maths on your Insights to calculate your organic reach. The figure Facebook shows you on your dashboard is a combination of organic and viral reach. By downloading the data and performing a calculation it’s possible to see just how poor the visibility of your content is to the majority of your fan base. Clients are often horrified at what this simple calculation shows them.

How to cut through the EdgeRank algorithm

As well as good practice in posting (another aspect covered extensively in our Masterclasses), it can be wise to invest a little ad budget to guarantee that your content gets seen. On Facebook this can be by promoting a post (remember to target this very specifically at the audience you want to address), atomising content into smaller chunks to spread updates further across the day and creatively repurposing content too.

Even on the non-algorithmic platforms like Twitter, paying to promote a Tweet will give it a lot more visibility.

Other ways of improving visibility and reach specifically on Facebook include:

  • Posting content types favoured by EdgeRank (currently videos, text status updates and link shares)
  • Using fresh images that have not already been used in ads or indexed by Open Graph
  • Long-form posts that get users clicking the “More” button will register higher engagement and be rewarded with better reach
  • Get fans to sign up to “Get Notifications”
  • Upload links with photos rather than photos with links
  • Tag relevant brand Pages in updates
  • Using larger photos (these won’t in themselves influence EdgeRank but their greater visibility should result in better engagement which in turn will trigger reach)
  • Always providing “context” in promotional posts, and keeping these to a minimum (or conversely keeping promotional content to ads-only)

What other platforms use algorithms?

YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest also employ algorithms to varying degrees. Each platform could easily merit a blog post in it’s own right, but for now we will bring you some key thoughts about optimising for each.

What does this mean for marketing on YouTube?

YouTube is the largest social network by number of visits, and second largest search engine after Google, and many basic SEO principles apply here from keyword research and deployment as well as channel and playlist optimisation. However, beyond these things the really key factor in determining ranking on YouTube is total watch time per session. Not views and not clicks.

Total watch time is how your video becomes a suggested video when the viewer’s current video ends. When you think of it this makes sense. YouTube wants to show the most relevant and engaging content so the longer you can hold the attention of a viewer the clearer the signal to YouTube that it is quality content.

The SEO work you do on YouTube will bring benefits both within the platform and also with search engine results. Of course keywords are essential, so do ensure you are using relevant keywords in the title, description and tags of your videos. These do play an important part in both YouTube search and the “related videos” algorithms. Think about individual keywords as well as longer tailed searches. There are multiple keyword suggest tools relevant to YouTube – why not put some time aside to start researching and optimising your channel?

We cover all the YouTube ranking factors together with tips and tricks for optimising your videos and channel in our popular YouTube and video marketing Masterclasses.

What does this mean for marketing on LinkedIn?

With LinkedIn we need to think about search in relation to personal as well as company profiles. In terms of individual profiles, there are four factors and keywords factor strongly:

  • Job history – the more the same keywords occur in your current and past job titles, the better you will rank for that keyword search. You have up to 100 characters for each so add in relevant keywords to your actual job title
  • Professional Headline – the algorithm will take a cue from your headline so make sure essential keywords are packed into the 120 characters
  • Name – clearly users are often searching for people by name and inevitably this will factor significantly in the algorithm
  • Connections – you’re more likely to see the John Smiths that are connected to people you have in your network

Things to do to improve your ranking in the search results include:

  • Using anchor text in links – rather than in your link to your blog it saying just “blog”, instead have “Facebook Marketing Blog”
  • Fully complete your profile (it’s amazing how few actually do this!)
  • Keyword optimise your job titles and job descriptions but don’t keyword stuff, instead choose relevant alternative words
  • Join relevant Groups – the search spiders will be crawling those titles too
  • Claim your vanity URL - probably doesn’t make much difference to ranking, but looks a lot more professional
  • Build recommendations and endorsements along with building your network

For company profiles you have 2,000 characters available.

  • Provide important information about your company and as before, optimise with keywords
  • Use keywords in order of importance in your specialities
  • Add in Featured Groups as relevant – if you are actively running groups with valuable content, your visibility will naturally be higher anyway
  • Remember to use the opportunity of creating a Showcase Page too.

Another key consideration to help feed the LinkedIn algorithm is to utilise their built-in publishing platform for long-form posts.

What does this mean for marketing on Pinterest?

Pinterest is the latest of the major social platforms to introduce an algorithm. Known as Pinterest Smart Feed and rolled-out at the end of 2014, the Pinterest algorithm uses 2 main factors in determining relevancy, Pin Quality and Source Quality, plus a mysterious third signal called ‘Pinterest Rating’.

Pin quality relates to the number of times a pin receives some form of engagement such as a comment or a repin. The longer interaction continues with pinners the longer that pin will feature in the feed of pinners.

Source quality is determined by how frequently people pin and repin content from a specific website or blog. If you pin great content it’ll likely be repinned by others, indicating a good source quality. If you repin someone else’s pin always check the source URL to ensure it’s from a high quality site if you want it to get good visibility.

Pinterest rating is a bit of an unknown quantity in much the same way as EdgeRank. Pinterest use pin quality and source quality together with a number of additional factors to determine the relevance of any given pin to another pin. This includes, for example, the tastes and interests of a user from their profile and previous pinning behaviour.

One key thing to mention is that time no longer carries any weight, so it doesn’t really matter how old a pin is. Plus it’s no longer possible to pin multiple times in quick succession and have those pins appear in all your follower’s feeds at once. In fact this behaviour will likely penalise your reach.

Of course there are also some basics you should follow to optimise visibility on Pinterest; Do make sure you are using a Pinterest business account and that the company username is optimised. This is confined to 15 characters which will be a challenge to many business names so think carefully about which are the key elements of your name to surface. Once set up, make sure you have verified your website and added your other social media accounts.

Here are more Pinterest algorithm winners that we cover in detail (along with many others) in the Pinterest section of our Masterclass on the ‘other’ social networks:

  • Optimise your Page’s ‘About’ section with 200 characters of keyword rich content.
  • Be sure to include your url in your About section as well as linking back in your pins. If you re-pin a post featuring your products, edit the description to include a full link. Pinterest is known to mark shortened links as spam.
  • On your boards use keywords as titles rather than the default board names Pinterest suggests. Describe your pins with relevant keywords but also in the language your potential customers use.
  • Give descriptive file names and alt text to the images you pin
  • Incorporate hashtags, especially trending topics
  • As with all SEO, think about the long tail as well as individual keywords

Which platforms don’t use algorithms?

Twitter has confirmed that it will be switching to an algorithm later this year but for now you still see a complete stream (or ‘firehose’) of tweets in reverse chronological order. Many Facebook detractors held this to be the perfect model (because all your content “gets seen” without the intrusion of a Big Brother style algo) until Twitter Analytics became available last year showing that resultant reach amongst the noise of an unfiltered stream was shockingly low. We cover all the best ways to get your prime Twitter content noticed in our Masterclass and will  keep our delegates informed on the Twitter algorithm developments as and when this is released.

Instagram, currently the darling of the social media platforms for reach and engagement, is also currently algorithm-free but given it’s owned by Facebook, this is likely going to be time limited. For now Instagram is like a party with a free bar, so enjoy the cocktails while you can.

Snapchat and Vine are also algo free.

Good practice for findability on the non-algorithmic platforms

As we’ve said, paying for advertising is a surefire way of cutting through the algorithm and spending time getting the basics right on each platform (even down to your About text) will help loads. Once that’s complete look to optimise each new piece of content, and, with platforms such as YouTube and Pinterest, it is well worth retrospectively addressing any missed opportunities.

Going forward with new content, hashtags are crucially important for discoverability on many of these platforms. Users properly hashtagging their Instagram posts should see follower numbers and reach rocket and clearly their use on Twitter is well established.

As has been seen by recent trending topics (#thedress, #WeaselPecker and more), novelty, humour and topicality can supercharge your content. Occasionally you’ll get lucky with creating the viral piece, other times use your creativity to ride the meme.

And finally, don’t be afraid to mention your presence on different platforms in other communications. This may be as simple as a “Social” list of icons on your newsletter, or a Facebook post all about your latest Vine.

Want to learn more about how to use social media marketing?

We’ve two Masterclasses coming up in London and Manchester (as well as online versions, available to people world-wide) in which we go through all this and much more in actionable detail. We’d love to have you join us.

This article was a co-write by The Digiterati founders, Marie Page and Carlton Jefferis.

Author's avatar

By Marie Page

Marie Page @marie_page is one of the UK’s leading Facebook marketing experts. She is a founding partner of digital marketing consultancy The Digiterati and the Digiterati Academy, an e-learning portal for marketers and entrepreneurs. She recently published a book and online course “Winning at Facebook Marketing with Zero Budget”.

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