When Facebook said it was changing its formula to reward quality content over click bait and memes, many news outlets accepted it at face value in their coverage.

But the actual effect on publishers has been unclear. When analytics firm NewsWhip put out its monthly list of most-shared sites on Facebook, news outlets like Fox News and The Guardian and BBC were in the top 10, to be sure. But the top spot in January was claimed by PlayBuzz, with more than 10 million shares, up from No. 10 last June. (For the unfamiliar, PlayBuzz is a mostly user-generated quiz and list mill that trades in posts like Where are These Hot Guys From and What Type of Bird Are You.)

NewsWhip just shows a snapshot in time rather than long-term trends, though, which can fuel the perception that the news feed is just for viral stories. Now, they’ve provided Digiday with new data that shows it’s not all bad for news for serious publishers.

NewsWhip examined eight news sites from Fox News to The New York Times and found that most had grown their Facebook engagements (a total of likes, comments and shares) since February 2014, even if they’re not on the top 10 list.

In a blog post, NewsWhip surmised that these gains are because of Facebook’s algorithm changes and publishers’ own sharpened ability to game the Facebook system by increasing their content’s sharability.

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March 17, 2017

It’s not a trivial issue. Facebook has become increasingly important to the publishing business. Last year, it drove about one-fourth of traffic to publishers’ sites, according to Shareaholic, by far the most of any social network. Thirty percent of U.S. adults get news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center.

The fact that traditional publishers are rising on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean a win for hard news, either. Take a look at the most-shared stories on Facebook for the last three months of 2014. Facebook doesn’t claim to be the final word on quality itself, but says it favors articles that your friends are commenting on. In other words, if you don’t like what appears in your news feed, consider the company you keep.

Traditional publishers have figured out what types of formats and content drive sharing, and the quiz is one of the most most surefire ways to get content shared, said David Spitz, president and COO of RebelMouse. “I would expect every major publisher would use more of these viral mechanics,” he said.

But getting Facebook traffic is a double-edged sword. Visitors who click on a publisher’s article from Facebook don’t stay as long as those who come directly to the publisher’s site, and the fly-by nature of Facebook traffic is even more true on mobile devices, Spitz said.

“Mobile is where it gets really acute,” he said. “The combination of traffic from Facebook and mobile makes it really hard to get people beyond the page view. So even while you may be getting lots of Facebook traffic, it’s a big challenge that that traffic is hunting, not browsing.”

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