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.

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Richard Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Burt Herman   Things get real

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Paul Ford   Go global

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

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

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Errin Haines   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Juleyka Lantigua   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

AX Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Jake Levine   The return to now

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile