Have you heard the one about alligators living in the sewers beneath New York City?
How about the one about people exploding after mixing Pop Rocks and Coke? Or the one where the babysitter was getting creepy phone calls…FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE??
See, urban legends are a ton of fun. They’re juuuust believable enough to be a little spooky, but in the back of your mind, you know it’s all just pretend.
At least, most of the time.
Other times, it’s way too easy to believe those things your friend heard from a friend of a friend, or that you could have sworn you read on the Internet somewhere. Especially because a lot of the time, it’s hard – or even IMPOSSIBLE – to get a straight answer about whether or not something is true.
Case in point: Does Facebook punish users who post to the social network using third-party apps?
This one’s been churning in the old rumor mill for YEARS – basically, ever since people first started using third-party apps at ALL. The legend? That Facebook gives posts published that way a significantly smaller organic reach, as a way of encouraging users to post directly through the social network instead.
Scary thought, right? Better not mess around with those third-party apps, RIGHT? Or else Facebook might give you the ol’ what-fer, RIIIIGHT??
So, fact or fiction. Urban legend or true story. Is this for real, or what?
Let’s take a closer look.
Fact: Organic reach on Facebook is dropping – for EVERYONE
I bet you look at the reach statistics on your Facebook updates and cringe.
I bet you look at those numbers – a FRACTION of what they were a year ago – and you think, “What the HECK did I do wrong?”
But you know what?
It’s not your fault.
In December 2013, Facebook implemented the first of a few major algorithm shifts – ones that were touted as ways to improve the user experience, but that major news organizations and marketers were justifiably cynical about. (If you wanna learn more about how these algorithms work, I wrote a blog post about it just a few weeks ago.)
Long story short? Organic reach for brand pages took a HUGE hit. Updates that used to get seen by thousands of followers now get seen by hundreds. You can’t blame Facebook – they’ve gotta create demand to generate sales for paid reach – but still, it sucks.
But what about posting with third-party apps? Does that make it even worse?
Well, as has been the case for years, Facebook is conspicuously silent on the issue of whether or not posting through a third-party app hurts your organic reach. (It isn’t that this is a particularly sensitive issue or anything – Facebook has ALWAYS been notoriously tight-lipped about how their algorithms work.)
That’s why today, I decided to do a little digging into my own numbers. ‘Cause hey, full disclosure here: When I said Facebook’s organic reach is down for everyone, that includes me! So here we go – let’s get all Nancy Drew up in here and see who’s REALLY responsible for the drop in organic reach: Facebook’s blanket algorithms, or the third-party posting app I’ve been using.
Test One: The Organic Reach Drop
First, I took a look right at the source – my Facebook Insights page. This is where you can see all of your reach data, clicks, engagement, and so on.
Here’s what I found.
That chart shows my Facebook page’s reach from July 2013 up until now, so we can see a clear before-and-after of that late 2013 algorithm change. I marked it on the graph, as well as the point at which I started using Edgar for our Facebook posting. (Full disclosure again: While I used Buffer prior to Edgar, I supplemented that with a lot of live posting, owing to limitations in Buffer’s functionality. Since switching to Edgar, almost every update – except for replies, obviously – has been posted through an app.)
Now, looking at this chart, you can see a clear distinction between 2013 organic reach and 2014 organic reach, right? (Remember to look at the pale-colored section – the huge, dark spikes represent paid reach.) The organic reach levels in 2013 were consistently a LOT higher than they were starting the following January.
Let’s compare that to what happened to our organic reach when we started using Edgar in mid-May:
See what happens to the organic reach? Nothing. The organic reach levels stayed pretty much the same. Facebook’s late-2013 algorithm change hurt my organic reach in a big way, but switching over to automated updates? Not at all.
Test Two: Tracking Blog Traffic
I decided it would be a good idea to look at some supplemental data, too, so I did a little digging in my blog’s Google analytics, to see how Facebook algorithms and relying heavily on a scheduling tool respectively impacted my site traffic.
Here’s what I found:
This is my blog traffic for the past year. (Now remember, this is ALL blog traffic, not just that from Facebook. Still, though, you’ll see a pattern.)
On the left is my traffic from August 2013 until the end of the year – the point at which Facebook instituted the reach-killing algorithm change. I marked a few peaks after that with Xs, because those traffic increases were the result of paid advertising at those particular times.
Just like on the Facebook Insights chart, you can see here that blog traffic was consistently higher before the Facebook algorithm change. It still had its peaks and valleys, sure, but those peaks reached a lot higher, and the valleys didn’t sink nearly as low.
Compare the 2013/2014 difference with the pre-Edgar/post-Edgar difference. The latter doesn’t really exist – Q1, Q2, and Q3 of this year have all been pretty much the same.
The verdict: Facebook’s algorithms have been brutal in 2014, no matter how you post your updates.
Of course, this is where I offer the obligatory “your mileage may vary” spiel. This is just one case study, you should look at your own analytics, etc., etc.
When you DO look at your own analytics, though, it’s important to actually crunch the numbers and look at your performance over time. Don’t rely on anecdotal guesswork! You might FEEL like your reach or engagement has been lagging more in one month than it did in the last, but until you bust out the ol’ abacus and start breaking it down, you just can’t know for sure.
So what can you DO?
First of all, don’t believe in urban legends. (Except for the Pop Rocks and Coke thing. Some things aren’t worth the risk, you know?)
Second, know your enemy. Okay, that was a little overdramatic. Facebook’s not your enemy. (I’ve just always wanted to SAY that!) But the more you know about how algorithms work – and the more you EXPERIMENT (ugh, homework, I know) – the better off you’ll be.
Third, update smarter. Being engaging and being consistent can be uphill battles, especially when you feel like your posts aren’t being seen. That whole “talking to an empty room” feeling is a real motivation killer. But you still have to do it. Put effort into writing solid updates. Monitor your Facebook Insights so you can learn when to post them. Does it take work? Yes. Is it worth it? Oh heck yes.
So, what’s YOUR experience been? Do you think the third-party app bias is urban legend, or true story? Let me know in the comments below!