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Facebook Advertising & News Feed Algorithm History

March 7, 2018
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Facebook is constantly making headlines because of updates. Changes in the algorithm, what you see in your newsfeed, advertising guidelines and new capabilities for advertising your business are all routine updates that happen on a regular basis.  Facebook has been around since 2004 with advertising being integrated from an early point, but there have been many changes over the years when it comes to how organizations use Facebook for marketing and what capabilities Facebook gives them to advertise.

In this article we will look at the history of advertising on Facebook and how their format and algorithm changes have impacted the way businesses communicate with audiences, drive revenue and grow brand awareness. While Facebook is constantly testing and rolling out different updates, this will focus on some of the milestone updates throughout Facebook’s existence.

2004-2005: The Birth of Facebook Advertising

Today we see Facebook as a popular social media network and advertising giant so it may not come as a surprise that they were quick to implement advertising as an offering on the platform. Facebook officially launched in February 2004 and ads began to show up by April.

Facebook Flyers

The first iteration of advertising was Facebook Flyers, which were essentially impression-based banner ads. At the time, Facebook was only available to students of certain colleges, so Facebook Flyers targeted them based on the school they went to. Facebook Flyers mostly advertised events around campus and other school-specific content but showed a lot of potential for future advertising efforts.

It’s relevant to note that during this time, Facebook did not have a News Feed feature or smart algorithms like it does today, and ads were not highly targeted.

2006: Audience Expansion and the News Feed

In 2006 the platform decided to open up access to anyone age 13 and older, regardless of their status as a student which allowed for massive audience expansion. This also opened up the opportunity for Facebook’s advertisers to reach millions of potential new customers.

Facebook also introduced its News Feed and status update features, providing users with content from within their social circles. This would shape the future of Facebook over the next decade. Instead of only receiving personal notifications, users began to get updates on what’s going on with the people they were connected with.

2007: Upping Their Advertising Game

2007 was an evolutionary year for Facebook’s advertising efforts, with the rollout of several new features and the first News Feed algorithm.

Facebook Flyers Pro

Facebook’s original flyer system received an update in 2007, starting a shift toward the use of targeting tools and algorithms. With the introduction of Flyers Pro, Facebook took advantage of a Cost Per Click (CPC) strategy where advertisers only paid for ads that users clicked on.  

Among the features of Flyers Pro were more sophisticated targeting methods which took advantage of keywords in users’ profiles as well as honing in on more specific details such as where they worked, their relationship status, political views, and education.

The Like Button and Start of Algorithms

A game changer was unveiled in 2007: the “Like” button. This was a major milestone in the history of Facebook, as it was the first time they really started exploring algorithms. Users could now take action by liking something if it appealed to them. Conversely, users could close out of content on their feed that they were not interested in. Both actions provided valuable data about users’ interests.

Facebook Ads

2007 was also when Facebook Ads were introduced. Meant as a way for businesses to target and interact with specific audiences, it provided a two-way street for advertisers to connect with their consumers. This could be achieved in three different ways:

  1. Creating Facebook Pages specifically for businesses to reach their customers
  2. Facebook Social Ads that would deliver brand messages by combining friends’ actions with relevant advertising content
  3. Insights, which provided metrics on user interactions with a Page

Insights broke new ground for Facebook’s advertising efforts, as it gave businesses access to data for the first time, including demographic information, ad performance metrics, user activity, and so forth. This gave advertisers the option to customize content and make changes to improve targeting. For the first time, Facebook users began to see advertising content that aligned with their habits and preferences – a trend that would stay at the heart of marketing on Facebook.

2008: News Feed Evolves

With so many new features pushed out in 2007, Facebook used 2008 to further refine their News Feed and site design.

Design Overhaul

In July 2008, Facebook unveiled their newest design and features, with a goal of making the website simpler but more feature-rich. After some backlash about Facebook ads, Facebook wanted their millions of members to feel they had more control over content. Focusing on the creating and sharing of dynamic social content, Facebook began offering users easier ways to publish content and filter their feed to make it as relevant as possible.

Engagement Ads

In 2008, Facebook also started testing interactive advertising as a way to combat low click-through rates for advertisers. Called Engagement Ads, they were integrated into News Feeds and users were encouraged to interact with the ads via commenting, virtual gift sharing, or becoming a fan of the advertiser’s Page.

2009-2010: Big Improvements

2009 and 2010 were turnkey years for Facebook in the way it served both users and advertisers.

News Feed’s New Algorithms

The News Feed changed in big ways with the implementation of new algorithms that completely redefined the way News Feeds are sorted. Instead of seeing updates from friends and Pages in chronological order, Facebook was now sorting content by popularity, showing posts with the highest engagement first.

Mobile Website

Today, it’s hard to imagine any successful business without a mobile-friendly website, but just a decade ago they weren’t so common. In 2009, Facebook launched their mobile website. Users could now interact on the go, and consequently advertisers had a new way to reach them.

Improved Targeting & More Ad Control

This period also saw some improvements for advertisers. Page owners could now set up and manage their own ads through Facebook. Their targeting tools also became more advanced, with the addition of both language-based and location-based targeting.

Social Media Content Calendar

2011: Algorithm Updates and Sponsored Stories

Thanks to feedback from users, Facebook made some adjustments in 2011 that affected the way News Feeds worked.

News Feed Algorithm Updates

In response to user feedback, the News Feed algorithm was tweaked to better serve Facebook’s millions of users. Instead of showing only popular posts in the feed, the algorithm now combined chronology with popularity. This was done in an effort to show the most relevant posts at the most relevant times.

Sponsored Stories

Until 2011, Facebook advertising was mostly limited to banner ads, company Pages and event info that were restricted to the right margin of your screen. Everything changed with the introduction of Sponsored Stories. Ads could now be integrated into the fabric of a user’s News Feed. These were posts that brands paid to have displayed, and were denoted by a small “Sponsored” link under the post.

2012: More Ads and More Data

2012 was a landmark year when it came to new ways of advertising on Facebook.

Introduction of Mobile Ads

Facebook advertising entered a new technological era with the unveiling of mobile ads in the News Feed. These came in the form of Sponsored Stories, Promoted Posts, app install ads, and more.

Facebook Ad Exchange

Facebook Exchange completely changed how advertisers utilized Facebook up until 2016. The real-time ad-bidding network allowed ads to be served to ideal users using first-party data from browser cookies and third-party data provided by research firms. This allowed advertisers to target, retarget, and deliver ads through Facebook.

2013: Quality and Improved Targeting

In 2013, Facebook shifted their focus to providing quality content to users.

News Feed Algorithm Updates

2013 saw big changes to the ranking algorithms on Facebook’s News Feed when it came to content from Pages. The newest algorithm pushed for more organic content from brands so that users only saw posts that may be interesting to them specifically. The algorithm analyzed over 1,000 different factors with the goal of pushing high-quality content. As a result, Facebook began to see more Page post interactions, and users were filtering out fewer updates from Pages.

New Targeting and Testing Tools

The push for relevant content didn’t stop with Pages. Facebook also made major updates that would help advertisers deliver their messages to the right people. Ads could now be delivered to people based on factors such as Page likes, interests, and habits. Optimization also played into when and where ads were served to readers. Feedback was also taken into consideration; users could now provide responses about ads, hide them, report them, and so forth. The drive for relevant content benefitted both advertisers and users, as users could now influence what kind of ad content they received, and advertisers had less waste.

New advertising tools were also added to Facebook’s arsenal in 2013. This included the introduction of lookalike audiences to help advertisers reach new customers who are similar to their current ones.

2014: Giving Users More Control

2014 was a year that mostly looked at Facebook advertising from the user perspective. It also marked a major period of transition, with a crackdown on content so that users were seeing less sponsored materials and more of the things that mattered to them socially.

Better Ads from User Feedback

Feedback from users showed that if they were going to be advertised to, they wanted to see more ads that reflected their interests. Using a combination of Facebook activity and data from external websites and apps, Facebook could now target and retarget users to address this.

Along with this change came many more options for users to control the ad content they were seeing. They could opt out of advertising plus access and modify ad preferences. This included the abilities to see why ads were being served to them, add and remove interests, and more. Users could also share feedback on why they do not want to see specific ads so that Facebook could improve their algorithms further.

Facebook also made an effort to cut down on News Feed spam, with algorithms that helped filter out spammy content such as like-baiting, false links, and overly-circulated content.

Reducing Promotional Posts

Feedback showed people wanted to see less promotional content on Facebook, instead favoring posts from their friends and Pages. Most of this content isn’t ads sold on Facebook, but “organic” posts from pages that feel overly promotional due to product/service sales promotion, sweepstakes, redundancy and so forth. As a result, Facebook edited their algorithms to filter out content from Pages that users may see as blatantly promotional. This change did not affect paid ads that were displayed in News Feeds.

News Feed Algorithm Updates

An algorithm update worth noting in 2014 involves Facebook’s use of video content. Seeing a trend in sharing and engagement, they updated the video ranking algorithms for both Pages and users who uploaded directly to Facebook. They did so using data such as how long people are watching, comments, shares, and likes. Again, Facebook looked at relevance to deliver users videos that they are likely to be interested in.

2015: Mobile Management and Balancing News Feeds

Facebook stayed on-course in 2015, continuing to emphasize relevant content while providing advertisers with new tools.

App for Managing Ads

By 2015, Facebook boasted over 2 million active advertisers. To address their needs, Facebook launched a mobile app called Ads Manager that allows advertisers to access their campaigns no matter where they are.

News Feed Algorithm Updates

With the goal of balancing News Feed content, Facebook made significant changes to their algorithms. The balance would depend on a user’s interests and habits, but showed a move toward personalization and community. This included giving posts from close friends priority in a feed. Content from Pages would still appear, but less often and only if proven relevant to the user.

Related Content: Staying Relevant: Facebook’s Newsfeed Algorithm Update

2016: More Control and Changes

More Ad Control for Users

In 2016, Facebook continued shifting power to its users. They made ad preferences easier to access and use. Users could now remove interests, opt out of customer lists, and more.

News Feed Algorithm Updates

Once again, Facebook looked at user feedback to help show only stories that matter to the reader. They found that people want to see stories at the top of their feed that are both likely to engage with and would rate highly if asked to. Based on this, Facebook started to rank stories higher based on the likelihood the viewer would take action – and would actually like to see the story.

They also began to integrate other factors into their News Feed ranking algorithms, including time spent viewing and variety of posts.

2017: Keeping Up Quality

In 2017, Facebook continued its mission to provide quality content and filter out filler.

Targeting Authenticity and Quality

Algorithm updates in 2017 focused on highlighting authentic posts that provided quality content to users. Facebook started filtering out links to low-quality websites, penalizing companies for using “click-bait” headlines and videos, cracking down on fake news, focusing on fast-loading content, and demoting posts that were seen as engagement-bait.

Video Ranking Updates

Facebook once again looked at videos when it came to updating some of their News Feed algorithms. Starting in early 2017, videos were prioritized over all other content. Facebook also took video completion rates and repeat views into consideration, ranking videos higher if users were more engaged.

Related Content: Facebook Video: Best Practices in the Age of Mobile

The Latest Updates and The Future

The first couple months of 2018 have already seen some big changes in Facebook’s News Feed and algorithms, with a goal to prioritize “meaningful interactions” – that is, value-rich posts from family and friends rather than content from Pages and media.

The algorithm changes hone in on content that encourages meaningful interactions with users. It doesn’t mean that posts from Pages are going away, but they will be held to higher standards to reinforce the new strategy.

Zuckerberg stated that his goal of 2018 was to “Fix Facebook,” so be sure to keep an eye out for changes. What are the quickest ways to make sure your Facebook presence stays relevant? Create and share only quality content that engages users, and invest in paid ads when you have clear advertising objectives.

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