You're connected with hundreds of people -- maybe even thousands -- on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But when you log in to each of these social networks, it's likely that you don't want to be bombarded by every single update from every single connection. That'd be pretty overwhelming, wouldn't it?
That's how the folks from each of these social networks feel -- and they've done a ton of user research to validate that feeling. In fact, that's exactly why the news feeds -- and the algorithms behind them -- exist.
All three of today's most popular social networks have gravitated toward an algorithm-based feed in the effort to create better experiences for their users. It started with Facebook in 2006, and then Twitter nine years later in 2015. In the coming months, Instagram will join the other two in switching from a chronological feed to an algorithm-based feed, too, according to an official announcement.
Trouble is, each algorithm works differently. What's worse, they're constantly changing, making it hard for marketers like us to keep up. To help get it all straight, we've put together this simple guide on how the news feed works on the three most popular social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Let's dive in.
(Note: Keep in mind that the algorithms are constantly changing. We'll continue to write about major social algorithm changes as they happen.)
Facebook's News Feed Algorithm
“Our goal is to build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a public Q&A in 2014. “We’re trying to personalize it and show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”
That's what Facebook's News Feed has been about since the very beginning. According to Zuckerberg, each of us gets exposed to more than 1,500 stories each day, but an average user only gets to see about 100 stories a day on their News Feed.
To give these users the best experience possible, Zuckerberg and his team of engineers are constantly learning user behavior and picking up signals that show what kind of content each user is most interested in. (And if you're curious to learn more, read this blog post for 20 fascinating things you probably didn't know about Facebook's News Feed.)
How It Works
The Like button has always been the epicenter of Facebook's user experience -- not only because we see it on everyone's posts, but also because it allows us to personalize our own experience (and influence everyone else's). Since it was first introduced in November 2007, it's helped Facebook's engineers figure out which posts were delighting users, boring them, offending them, and so on.
Nowadays, the algorithm that governs Facebook's News Feed has grown to be much more sophisticated. It isn't just about the Like button anymore -- and not just because reaction buttons are now in the mix. In fact, Facebook's algorithm is by far the most complicated of the three social networks covered in this post.
Here's a quick rundown of the most important things Facebook's algorithm takes into account.
When picking posts for each person who logs on to Facebook, the News Feed algorithm takes into account literally hundreds of variables -- and can predict whether a given user will Like, click, comment, share, hide, or even mark a post as spam.
More specifically, the algorithm predicts each of these outcomes with a certain degree of confidence. This prediction is quantified into a single number called a "relevancy score" that's specific both to you and to that post.
Once every post that could potentially show up in your feed has been assigned a relevancy score, Facebook's sorting algorithm ranks them and puts them in the order they end up appearing in your feed. This means that every time you log in, the post you see at the very top of your News Feed was chosen over thousands of others as the one most likely to make you react and engage.
Ads are given relevancy scores, too, so that Facebook can show users only the ads that could matter most to them. Again, this is supposed to give users a better experience -- but it's also helpful for the businesses that are paying for the ads. It's calculated based on the positive feedback (video views, conversions, etc.) and negative feedback Facebook expects an ad to receive from its target audience. (Learn more about relevancy score for Facebook ads here.)
Before 2015, Facebook was predicting what users want to see on the News Feed based on more indirect signals, like Likes, comments, and shares of others. Eventually, they added options for users to filter out posts they don't want to see. But what about helping boost the posts users do want to see?
Through studies and surveys, they found that many users were concerned they were missing important updates from friends they cared about the most. In response to these concerns, they began changing the News Feed algorithm to give more control to the users themselves.
It started in April 2015, when they began giving priority (in the form of higher relevancy scores) to posts from friends over the Pages they follow and promotional posts. Later that year, in July, they introduced the "See First" feature, which lets you actually hand-pick which accounts -- whether friends or followed Pages -- you want to see first at the top of your News Feed.
Now, when you select a person or page to "see first," their posts will appear at the top of your News Feed. (Note: Selecting people to "see first" is different than selecting them as a close friend: When you select a person as a close friend, you'll just receive notifications when they post something new.)
To select people or pages to "see first": First, click the downward facing arrow in the top-right corner of any Facebook page and select "News Feed Preferences."
In the window that appears, click "Prioritize who to see first." Then, select the people or pages you'd like to, see first on your feed.
Time Spent on a Post
Starting in June 2015, Facebook started monitoring how much time users spend viewing certain posts. Of course, the time you spend on a post can vary depending on your internet speed, the length of the post, and so on -- and the folks at Facebook are aware of that.
However, they have found that if people are spending a lot more time on a particular post in their feed than the majority of other posts they look at, then it's a good sign the content was relevant to them.
How does this play out in the feed? If you spend more time on a particular post, Facebook is more likely to show that post on your friends’ News Feeds.
In summer 2015, Facebook surveyed users on how they interacted with video on their News Feeds and found that that many people who were interested in a given video didn't necessarily Like it, comment on it, or share it with their friends. Since engagement is one of the primary ways Facebook measures people's interest in posts, they had to come up with other ways to figure out whether people enjoyed the videos they were seeing.
To help do that, they started monitoring other forms of video engagement -- like turning on the audio, switching to full-screen mode, or enabling high definition. So if you turn up the volume on a video or make it full-screen, the algorithm will interpret that as you enjoying the video, and will show you similar videos higher up in your feed.
The update doesn't mean users will see more videos in their News Feed -- only those who already engage more with video-related content.
Facebook's algorithm is very, very complex, but we hope that gives you a good idea of what it considers important so you can tweak your Facebook marketing strategy accordingly. Now, let's move on to Twitter.
Twitter's Timeline Algorithm
Whereas Facebook makes most of the decisions for you on what will show up in your Facebook News Feed, Twitter's historically taken a very different approach with what they call the "Timeline."
Your Timeline is the stream of tweets from the users you follow that shows up on your account home page when you first log in. It used to be that your Timeline was made up of every single tweet from every user you follow, in chronological order. But the folks at Twitter found that, similarly to what was happening on Facebook, users felt like they were missing all the best tweets from the people they care about most.
"We wanted to change that feeling of missing out," said Twitter Product Manager Michelle Haq, "which is why we decided to go after that problem."
The changes they made to the algorithm aren't nearly as platform-changing as the one Facebook has made, but it is a departure from the real-time element that has defined Twitter from the beginning.
How It Works
The engineers at Twitter have attempted two different approaches for surfacing the "best" tweets first on your Timeline: the "While You Were Away" feature, and the even newer "Show me the best Tweets first" feature.
The "While You Were Away" Feature
This feature was added in 2015 as a first attempt to rid users of whatever FOMO (fear of missing out) they may have been feeling from the chronological nature of the original Timeline.
Basically, it's a recap of some of the best tweets you may not have seen otherwise. How do these tweets make the cut? According to TechCrunch, it's determined by "user engagement" -- although they don't get any more specific than that.
You can't turn off the feature, but how often you see it depends on how often you use Twitter. The recaps pop up more frequently for users who check the app "only once in a while," according to Twitter Product Manager Paul Rosania in the official announcement.
"Our goal is to help you keep up -- or catch up -- with your world, no matter how much time you spend on Twitter," wrote Rosania. "With a few improvements to the home timeline we think we can do a better job of delivering on that promise without compromising the real time nature of Twitter."
The "Show Me the Best Tweets First" Feature
The "Show me the best Tweets first" feature, introduced in February 2016, is a little more similar to Facebook's News Feed. Why? Because it actually changes the content on your Timeline based on a tweet's relevancy, rather than listing tweets chronologically.
By default, Twitter's algorithm puts the tweets it thinks you'll find most interesting at the top of your Timeline, still recent and in reverse chronological order. These tweets are chosen based on accounts you interact with most, tweets you engage with, and much more, according to Twitter's Support page.
The rest of the tweets will be displayed right underneath, also in reverse chronological order. Unlike the "While you were away" feature, these "best tweets" won't be highlighted or indicated in any way -- so you won't be able to tell where the "best tweets" stop and the rest of the tweets begin. According to Wired, while there’s no limit to how many "best tweets" will be out of order at the top, Haq says the average is about a dozen.
There are two ways to remove these "best tweets" from the top of your Timeline. One is a quick fix: You can always refresh your Timeline to see all new tweets at the top in the totally live way you might have been used to seeing in the past.
But if you want to always see your Timeline live, then Twitter does allow you to opt of this feature if you'd like -- unlike Facebook's News Feed.
To opt out of this feature: Go to your profile settings. In the "Account" tab, scroll down to "Content" and look for "Timeline." Toggle the box next to "Show me the best Tweets first" to change the setting.
Is Twitter Moving Away From Real-Time?
Do these changes mean Twitter's moving away from an emphasis on real-time updates? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsay says no. Check out his tweet below, where he assures customers that real-time Twitter is here to stay.
I *love* real-time. We love the live stream. It's us. And we're going to continue to refine it to make Twitter feel more, not less, live!— Jack (@jack) February 6, 2016
But many users are still concerned. For reassurance, I like the way David Pierce put it in his article for Wired: "Facebook asks you to trust its ability to surface everything you want and need; Twitter’s been a more understandable haven. It’s certainly possible (though exceedingly unlikely) that Twitter could switch to a fully algorithmic timeline in the future, but this is not that."
This is something we'll have to keep an eye on.
The Instagram Feed's Algorithm
Of the three social networks in this post, Instagram is the newest to an algorithm-run feed. Although Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, it didn't fiddle with catering content to specific users until April 2014, when they tweaked the "Explore" tab to display posts specifically tailored to each user. Before that change, the "Explore" tab had only showed the most popular posts across all Instagram users instead of specific users.
Even more recently, there have been rumblings about an impending change to Instagram's algorithm that'll alter your Instagram feed pretty drastically. A post to Instagram's official blog on March 15, 2016 said, "To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most."
As with Facebook, the goal of this change is to improve user experience. After all, Instagram reports that people miss 70% of the content on their Instagram feeds on average.
How It'll Work
The folks at Instagram say they want to focus first on optimizing order. In other words, all the posts will still be there, just in a different order. The algorithm will likely order the content on your feed based on the following factors:
1) The number of Likes and comments a post has.
An Instagram spokesman told Tech Insider that it won't be a popularity contest. That being said, the number of Likes and comments a post gets will be given some weight.
2) Your relationships with the user posting.
If you tend to Like photos from certain accounts, or regularly leave comments on pictures from those accounts, then Instagram will likely show you more posts from them.
3) The timeliness of the post.
To maintain some emphasis on chronology, the time at which the photo was posted will have some determination of where it shows up in your feed so you're seeing timely posts.
4) What you share directly with users (and who those users are).
What posts you share directly with other users -- and who those users are -- will make it more likely that you'll see posts from those users in your feed.
When Will These Changes Roll Out?
How soon are we talking, here? According to Instagram's blog post on March 15, 2016, the change will roll out to users over the next few months.
Here's a tweet update from Instagram's official Twitter account on March 28, 2016:
We're listening and we assure you nothing is changing with your feed right now. We promise to let you know when changes roll out broadly.— Instagram (@instagram) March 28, 2016
Again, it's likely that the first sign of a change will be a change in the chronology of posts, so keep an eye out for that as you scroll through Instagram over the next few months.
It's All About Content Quality
The key takeaway for brands and individuals alike is this: At the end of the day, it all comes down to the quality of your posts.
These algorithms are meant to filter out the irrelevant and the poor quality posts so that the highest-quality stuff is what gets through and gets shown to users. Control over what users see and don't see is shared between the social platform and the user -- some more equally than others.
The big lesson for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram marketers like us is to remember that it's our job to post content to social that's interesting, entertaining, helpful, and/or relevant to our audience. This means picking relevant topics, writing delightful copy, and posting compelling images and videos. (Download these 100 social media image templates for help in the visual content department.)
That way, your posts have a better chance of getting shown to users -- so you can continue to inspire, delight, and educate them.
Originally published Apr 14, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017