Why Hacking Social Media Algorithms Is a Dangerous Game - Here's Why #127 | Perficient Digital

Why Hacking Social Media Algorithms Is a Dangerous Game – Here’s Why #127

It’s not hard to find tricks and hacks that can temporarily overcome shrinking organic reach as social media site algorithms get stingier. But is it a good idea?

In this episode of our Here’s Why digital marketing video series, Perficient Digital’s Mark Traphagen explains why hacking social media algorithms isn’t a good long-term strategy for success and shows what you should do instead.

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Transcript

Eric: Mark, what do we mean by hacking a social media algorithm?

Mark: Let me make clear that I’m not talking about doing anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. And I’m not even talking about, like, breaking into the algorithm in some way. What I am talking about and what I do mean by hacking in this context is taking advantage of a weakness or a loophole in the algorithm and using it as a marketing strategy.

Eric: Can you give an example?

Mark: Sure. Let’s talk about Upworthy and the Facebook news feed algorithm. Now Upworthy is a publishing site that was founded with a lofty ideal, to only publish viral content that had some real meaning or that had value to it. But over time as competition stiffened, they succumbed to the clickbait temptation

Eric: What’s the clickbait temptation?

Mark: If you’re a publishing site dependent on ad revenue generated by page views, then sooner or later your number one priority becomes getting people to click through to your site, and that means you begin to look for any way you can find to get more people to see your posts, and then whatever it takes to entice them to click through.

Eric: But is it so bad that you want to get more clicks and more eyes on your site?

Mark: Of course not. I mean, we all want that, but I’m talking about pursuing clicks over value, over everything else, when that means compromising your content mission. Now early on, Upworthy had strong brand differentiation among the social content publishers, but nowadays their content looks just like all the other publishers. Clickbait content tends to go after the lowest common denominator. So quality goes out the window

Eric: I see. So how does that relate to the dangers of hacking an algorithm, though?

Mark: Well, Upworthy and many other publishers were lured toward publishing for the Facebook algorithm. And when they started out, Facebook’s news feed algorithm was then known as EdgeRank, and it was largely driven by engagement. The more clicks, and shares, and likes a post got, the more users would see it. So those publishers succumbed to the temptation to create posts and titles that tended to get more engagement whether or not the content really helped build their brand or to develop a loyal audience.

Eric: I take it that that strategy didn’t last?

Mark: No, it didn’t. Facebook noticed that user’s news feeds were being overrun with junk content, and their metrics showed people didn’t like that. So they could see that people who got more clickbait type content in their feeds started using Facebook less, and that means lower ad revenue for Facebook. So they did the inevitable, they tweaked their algorithm to begin to filter out clickbait content and show it less often even if it got a lot of engagement. Now by November of 2014, Upworthy was pulling in around 90 million visitors from Facebook, but then in December of that year, it all came crashing down.

 Graph showing Upworthy Crash

We now know that Facebook implemented a major algorithm change around that time. Since many clickbait sites were hit, not just Upworthy, it’s reasonable to conclude that the algorithm change addressed content quality.

Eric: What’s the takeaway lesson from this?

Mark: Well, no one is going to deny that hacks taking advantage of loopholes or weaknesses often work. I mean, at least for a while. They can bring in tremendous amounts of traffic. But if the owner of the algorithm, whether it be Facebook, Google, or whoever sees that the content being promoted causes dissatisfaction among its users, you can bet they’re going to plug that hole. If you’ve built your entire content strategy around taking advantage of the hole, when it closes, you’re back to square one.

Eric: And that’s not a sustainable competitive advantage.

Mark: Exactly. So if your business goals are for long-term, sustainable growth and content marketing is part of your marketing plan to get there, you should be investing in two things.

First, content that works to enhance your brand’s reputation. That means content that is so helpful and useful to your audience that they will remember you and be favorable toward you when it comes time to shop for whatever you’re selling, and that content should also have some relevance to your business. So it communicates that you’re at the top of your game in your field.

Second, your efforts in social should be toward building a loyal audience rather than just getting the click. Now you do this through listening to your audience, engaging with them, and making them your heroes by highlighting and sharing what they do and create.

[Tweet “Your two aims in social media should be brand enhancement and audience building. More at” ]

Eric: Thanks, Mark.

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4 responses to “Why Hacking Social Media Algorithms Is a Dangerous Game – Here’s Why #127”

  1. Abubakar says:

    Very informative and interesting things that i learned today with your thoughts about social media hacking and to groom our business with some strong strategies unlike to follow the same repeating algorithms. Thanks for great talk!

  2. Sanju Joseph says:

    Such a great video! The way you conveyed the whole information was just very interesting.

  3. Mark Traphagen says:

    Thanks!

  4. Aneesh says:

    Really informative video… Conveyed the issues in social media in an interesting way

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