Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

“Between Google, YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify, many of the world’s most influential feeds are now betting that their algorithms can do a better job of guessing what we want to see than we do ourselves.”

As Facebook referrals plummeted throughout 2017, many publishers compensated for that traffic — and then some — with referrals from Google. Historically, the bulk of Google referrals have come from organic search and Google News. But in July, Google introduced its own feed, a direct competitor to the Facebook News Feed that presents content in the Google app and Android home screen based on your search history and topics you follow.

A feed driven by your revealed topic preferences, rather than by a list of publishers and creators you follow, represents a big departure from how Facebook’s News Feed works. Google has made a similar switch on the homepage of YouTube, where the channels you subscribe to have become secondary to videos chosen by an algorithm according to your interests. Facebook has even begun to dabble in interest-driven curation on Instagram, where you can now follow hashtags in your main feed. In the case of Instagram, this shift was engineered by the person behind Spotify’s wildly successful Discover Weekly playlists, which combine human and algorithmic curation to recommend new music from artists you don’t yet follow. Between Google, YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify, many of the world’s most influential feeds are now betting that their algorithms can do a better job of guessing what we want to see than we do ourselves.

What this shift will mean for publishers is not yet entirely clear. In some cases, it could help publishers find new audiences that wouldn’t have known to search for and follow them. But it will also dramatically increase the competition for attention with users’ feeds, and the value of a “follow” or “subscribe” will decline. When a post hits a user’s feed because of the keywords it contained, rather than because the user “followed” the publisher, building and retaining a loyal audience becomes even harder.

In this new world, the keywords that newsroom SEO experts layer into headlines and URLs will become even more critical. We previously thought about keyword hygiene as a strategy to make sure that users searching for your content could find it. Now, keywords could determine whether your article makes it into users’ feeds at all. Having millions of subscribers will matter less than making content that can hit the right user interest categories.

And it’s worth the reminder that the algorithms that parse a user’s interest, and tag articles and videos by their keywords, aren’t all that smart yet. In early 2016, we spotted problematic interests like “dog-fighting” in Facebook’s “Preferred Audience” tool, and this year both Facebook and Google were rocked by scandals showing that advertisers could target categories like “Jew Haters.” The simple existence of Facebook’s Preferred Audience tool suggests that the Facebook algorithm cannot yet successfully parse interest categories from a story without some human help. Even Discover Weekly’s algorithm is based on an initial level of human curation.

In Google’s new feed, users can exert some control over their preferences — but the experience is fragmented, confusing, and inconsistent. You can add “interests” like Android and the Galaxy S III, but not Google or Samsung. You can react to stories you don’t like by indicating that you are not interested in stories from a certain publisher, but you can only proactively follow publishers like The Verge by searching for them inside the Google app.

Last year, I wrote about the opportunities and risks of chasing mobile search results. In 2018, keywords will be central not only to a newsroom’s search strategy, but also to placing content in every mobile feed that matters.

Helen Havlak is editorial director of The Verge.

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