Saturday, 18 May 2013

Facebook statistics, post views and pay-to-play

Facebook offers a free service that aims to make a profit by getting people to pay for its services, but lately, it's using tactics that show its super-powers, and it regularly reminds us that according to how we reach into our pocket, we can have an analogous share of that super-power. In fact, the larger the wallet, the greater the power we may have, not will have - there is no guarantee of that, no matter how much you pay). Scary stuff in a day and age where money counts more than actions. Less money in your pocket silences you; it's a market-driven profit-chasing world, based on high numbers and website metrics.

Sharing your material with others is getting more and more difficult. People are less willing to do this these days, being aware of the popularity stakes involved and the fact that by doing this, they may be raising yours and not theirs. Your own attempts might be viewed as somewhat cheesy, as a way to gain 'likes'. It's all about image. Facebook knows this, so it constantly finds ways to stop the quick spread of what might turn out to be an interesting post that's been shared or posted without payment: in the last month or so, it's been employing a policy of reminding page owners that in order to play, you have to pay. Liking a page isn't enough - you have to tell Facebook that you actually want to be kept in contact with the page you just liked (through its notifications settings); and for the page to gain popularity, the owner has to pay advertising costs, otherwise, the page is lost in the mire of the cybersphere. It all has a slimy feel to it and the fin factor is missing. Your likes are soci-economic choices.

Worse still, Facebook changes its algorithm rules so often without any warning that you cannot always keep up with them, and even more importantly with privacy settings (these are important to many of my followers and readers, so I like to respect them). A couple of days ago, for instance, I found that new comments for my page posts are now shown at the top, right below the post - before, they were shown chronologically, and new comments were always added at the bottom. Facebook finds ways to play around with you when it feels like, but can you play around with Facebook? It sounds like a case of David and Goliath.

The first thing a page owner now sees when they open their Facebook page (this does not apply to personal profile pages) is their statistics. Numbers cause panic, so this is Facebook's way of spreading some level of a stress and disarray among its users who have a vested interest in raising their hits. The statistics are provided by showing a little table:

Thursday 16/5/2013, 3.30pm
This is your first encounter with the 'pay to play' feature. The 'reach' numbers change as more and more people see the posts. They change instantly, so you can track the popularity of the post over a very short period of time, from the moment you put it up. The posts are shown chronologically, from the latest to the oldest, and there is a scroll button to view older posts. I don't know what these figures really show: 'how many people' doesn't explain if they are different users or the same users seeing something again. At the same time, those statistics are so variable - sometimes you get a total of 40 views for a post, while the very next post you place on your page may get 400... What is going on?

Let's see what happenes if you suddenly feel tempted to into paying to play. What do you see if you click on 'Boost Post'?
Sorry about the currency - I am using pounds for consistency, as the photos were taken at different times.

Remember, likes, comments and shares don't make a difference concerning who sees your post. It's mainly the money you've paid that makes the difference; your audience will probably come from the same pool of people who have already liked your page.

13 pounds translates to 16 euro in this box.
Below the table, you also see another promotion box (see above photo) with some more statistics in graph form, which shows your decline/rise in popularity (another stress-inducing factorx), with a 'suggested amount' as a payment for getting more likes. The area where this promotion box is located was until last week being used to show page owners their new followers, which is also instantly updated, as people like the site. (Now, you cannot see them at a glance - it involves more mouse clicks, which often annoys time-efficient people.) It has a suggested amount for you to pay - for one day's worth of play, it isn't cheap! And what do you get for 13 pounds? Check out the photo below:
Photo taken Wednesday, 15/5/2013
It's quite a wide range they give you there; again, it all depends on your pocket. But it looks tempting, doesn't it? Imagine getting as many as 735 likes in one day! But it might be as low as 184... Or even lower than the estimations, as the photo below shows (it was taken only 2 days after the above photo):

Photo taken Friday, 17/5/2013
Can you now see why I am feeling slightly cheesed off with Facebook? They weren't even telling the truth about what you'd be getting for your money's worth. Imagine having paid 20 pounds on Wednesday, only to find out on Friday that, oh, er, actually, the estimations have been changed (because they were wrong, misleading, untruthful, whatever), and you are now estimated to get as little as 60 likes or as many as 540. The whole charade is now sounding dubious: the changes Facebook makes are introduced so rapidly, that they have not worked out the quality of the service or how valid their 'promises' are. It also makes their statistics sound more like a scare-tactic to dupe you into paying; now, it seems more likely that there is a possibility that even those figures are unreliable.

Since Facebook began pushing their 'pay to play' campaign on page owners, it has begun to send you regular little reminders about your popularity - I got these two this morning on my personal profile notifications (but Facebook never seemed to confuse my personal profile with my public page before...):

The photo was taken on Friday, 17/5/2013; the posts were made on the same day, 6 hours earlier. I notice that I am getting regular notifications about how my posts are performing "better than 90% of other posts on that Page."...
Both the posts in question were published only 6 hours before I got the messages. One had a higher number of 'views' than the other (so the 90% figure does not make absolute sense). Not only that, but in the course of the same length of time, a number of my other posts had performed even better than these ones; this one reached almost double the numbers of the posts named in the photograph in just four hours; it's already gone viral, so to speak, having performed better than any post I have put up in the last few days - yet it was not singled out to me by Facebook, while the underperforming posts are. So I can't take these statements as truly true expressions...
Some of my classic Greek/Cretan food photos do 2-3 times as well as anything else I post on my page. I put this down to my followers' love for Greek culinary nostalgia. Haniotiko Boureki, a local specialty made with zucchini, with our garden's zucchini plants in the background (photo taken Friday 17/5/2013).
After doing a little bit of experimentation, I have found that the number of people that view your page posts is affected by the type of post. Facebook allows varying coverage of your posts depending on whether they are:
  • a photo that you uploaded onto your page
  • a photo that you shared directly from another page
  • a link from another Facebook page
  • a link to a website/blog
  • a link from an automatic posting site
  • a status update (no link, no photo) 
... among others (I only use the above forms; there may be other kinds of posts I don't know about). The views a post gets do not depend on the chronological order of the posts. Here is an example from one of my experiments on how to maximise the views a post gets:
The photo was taken on Friday, 17/5/2013; the posts were all made on Wednesday 15/5/2013.

In the photo above, the post statistics appear in chronological order, with the latest showing first. Two posts look similar to each other; they were posted within 20 minutes of each other on Wednesday, and the photo was taken 2 days later, showing the total reach since those two days. But the older one got more views than the newer one. This could not have to do with the time of day each was posted; it was due to the kind of post: the more popular one was a status update (where I didn't link to any other site/page/URL) while the less popular one contained the same text with the same status update but I also included a link (in this case, a link to my blog). In the case where I wrote only a status update and didn't add a link/URL, I added the phrase "see link below" at the end of the status update and placed the link I was referring to in the comments section; it looked like a comment, and not a link to another site which could of course boost the popularity of the other site, without Facebook getting any payment for this kindness. The status update (with the URL in the comments section) got more views than the text+URL post.

But the difference in numbers is not so high after all, you might want to argue. Let's see how other posts are treated:
The photo was taken on Friday, 17/5/2013; the posts were all made on Wednesday 15/5/2013.
In the photo above, you can see two different posts with seemingly the same wording, so they appear to have been posted twice each (ignore the first and last posts). In other words, there are four posts in total. These posts are illustrated below:
Compare each pair of photos - the same text and link are presented in different ways, with different view numbers.
Exactly the same thing happened as described in the previous case: The posts that contained some text (like a status update), with a URL link to some very appealing photos that I found on other Facebook pages I follow, got hardly any views. The posts that got the most views were posted as plain status updates with a note directing readers to the comments section (eg 'see image below'), so that they could see what I was talking about in the status update. Both the Facebook page links were for commercial sites (ie someone is selling something).

If one system works better than the other, you might be thinking that I should just use the other system and forget about the whole thing. But the truth is that people hate double-clicking for information, and Facebook knows this, so they use an algorithm that produces low views for links that direct you to other money-making sites. But a status update seemingly doesn't link to anything - it's like saying 'hello world'. It feels more innocent, less money-oriented. They let you view plenty of such posts. Otherwise, for links to be spread to a wider audience than a page's regular fan base, they must be promoted. By paying.

Below, I show the development of the four posts discussed above, in chronological order, from the time the newest of the four posts was published on my page, for the following 60 or so minutes:

                                                                     12.53  12.57  13.00 13.03 13.06 13.10 13.27 ... 14.04
i love the way the food is presented here as it provides... ---         77       77         109      109    140     187    ... 223
greek cuisine doesnt use many flavourings - it's usually... 251    251      255        255       261   261     272    ... 292
i love the way the food is presented here as it provides...  15        15       17          17        18      18       18     ...   19
greek cuisine doesnt use many flavourings - it's usually...  26      26       28          28        29      29       30     ...   32

You get the picture: A post that contains an original message from the author of a page, but which primarily links to a commercial page when it is shared as a link, is NOT given wide coverage. But if I write my original message as a status update, sneaking in a little note advising readers to 'check the post below' (which actually appears as a 'comment') where I link to the article I actually wanted my readers to click on, I get much better coverage - by miles. As I am obviously not imagining things, I did an online search (notice how I didn't say I 'googled' it) for 'facebook post views'. (Most of the sites in the top 10 gave you tips on how to improve your popularity - one site even mentioned paying for ads!) It seems that I'm not the only person noticing these things: Facebook is probably screwing you, and denying it, as one writer says.
From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred,” says Bilton. So, he tested out a Promoted Post. After paying $7 to get one of his article posts promoted by Facebook, he says that he saw a 1,000% increase in interaction in a few hours. “It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for,” he concludes. (Source: )
The truth is that when you have liked a lot of pages, just like when you have friended a lot of people, you are unlikely to be able to want to keep up with all of them, expecially if they are selling something or asking you to share/promote their pages. That isn't going to work in the long run. My personal analysis of my own facebook page statistics points to the sad fact that if you don't/can't pay to play, your posts won't be seen by many friends or followers. My statistics reveal the following:
  • a photo that you uploaded onto your page - about 10-20% of your followers will see it
  • a photo that you shared directly from another pag - minimal coverage, about 1-2%
  • a link from another Facebook page: minimal coverage - about 1-2%
  • a link to a website/blog - about 10% of your followers will see it
  • a link from an automatic posting site - about 10% of your followers will see it
  • a status update (no link, no photo) - about 20-40% of your followers will see it 
Keep in mind that if you use a status update and add the link you want to direct your readers to in a comment, they (the readers) are required to make more mouse clicks, which isn't popular with computer users. We like to go as quickly as possible to the page that we want.

The stress factor does not end just with statisitics. Facebook regularly contacts you by email to give you an update about your page statistics, using minus signs and the red colour - both negative symbols - when you haven't been performing well (when your stats are higher, it uses a plus sign and the green colour):

Hi Maria,
Here are the latest insights about your Facebook Pages.
Organically Cooked
New LikesTalking about thisWeekly Total Reach
11189 -13.3%2,553 -19.8%
It is a clear reminder that you are not paying for ads. As long as you don't aim to be a commercial success, a 'hello world' post (aka status update) is all that will be spread at the most. At the same time, it isn't Facebook that shoud be seen as the problem here. It's what the world has become: a market-driven, profit-based one. If that doesn't change, then Facebook won't change. It'll be seen as a fair way to play. Empires rise and empires fall, while different events shape history, and we are in fact living in a time when two major events are shaping history: the economic crisis of the West and the overtaking of the markets by the East. Once these issues are resolved, in conjunction with the reconciliation of the balance between the virtual and actual worlds, we might see a change in the behaviour of Facebook. If it exists of course - it's just another empire that's hanging on wherever it can to defend its own survival. Facebook knows that there are competitors out there, and it's doing all it can to maintain its position. At the end of the day, Facebook is what you make of it yourself:
But like life Facebook is tricky. You think you know what it is and it changes. You think you have seen it all and something new appears. You think you understand it and you realize you barely scratched the surface. You think you are using it and you discover it has used you. You think you have a life and you realize all you have is Facebook. You think you have friends and all you have is Facebook friends. But as long as you are thinking, it's all OK. (Source )
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