How Facebook Sponsored Stories Work

How the sorting algorithm works for Facebook newsfeeds

Facebook doesn't use a chronological feed like Twitter does (or like Facebook earlier). Instead, what you see in your news feed is determined by an algorithm that sorts things based on what Facebook expects you to do. This is cause for some dismay.

Every now and then a page or person I follow Facebook complains that their posts only reach a small fraction of their followers and asks everyone to add them to their “First to See” list so they can “keep reaching all of their fans”. They claim that Facebook is cutting them off and hiding them from some of their followers' feeds to make them pay for sponsored posts. But that's not really how Facebook works.

If you've used Facebook for a few years, chances are you're friends with a few hundred people (you don't really care about most of them) and liked far too many sites (you probably don't care about most of them). The number of my friends is far north of 1100 and I'm afraid to think about how many sites I liked.

Facebook wants you and me, the users, to keep busy, engaged. You've poured millions of dollars into finding ways to stop as many people as possible from returning for another social bang. It's not enough to show us a ton of stories from previous friends or sites where we tried to win an iPhone 4. So Facebook had to find a way to get around that.

How Facebook determines what you see

How does Facebook determine which stories appear and which don't? As they say in their FAQ:

The stories that appear in your news feed are: Influenced by your connections and activity on Facebook. That way, you'll see more stories that interest you from friends you interact with the most. The number of comments and likes a post receives and the type of story (e.g. photo, video, status update) can increase the likelihood that it will appear in your news feed.

This is a bit vague so we reached out to Facebook to find out more.

Facebook has a ton of information, and Facebook doesn't want to show you stories that don't interest you. Every time you open Facebook, the algorithm checks all possible stories that might be shown to you. Everything your friends and the pages you follow have posted since you last signed in is included. Each story is rated individually and given a relevance factor. a measure of how likely Facebook is that you spend time viewing, liking, commenting on, or sharing it. This score is unique to you. A post from How-To Geek's Facebook page has a different rating for you than for me. Facebook uses these signals as a proxy for current interest.

There are thousands of different signals, mostly about who posted the story, what type of content it has, how many interactions it has, and when it was posted.

When you add someone on Facebook, the algorithm won't know if they are your new best friend or a stranger you buy a TV from. Over time, Facebook learns that your beast is someone you care about, so their posts get a higher relevance score than random old-school friends.

The type of post is also very important. If you watch a lot of videos, you will see more videos. If you mainly like text posts, these will be displayed more. If you never interact with photos, you will see less.

For Facebook, interactions (likes, stocks, etc. are a good indicator of how interesting something is. So if you can choose between two posts on the same page, one with hundreds of likes, the other with a few dozen, then the one with hundreds) becomes the one with hundreds displayed first.

Finally, Facebook takes into account the topicality. Everything happens quickly online. Something that was released last week is probably not as interesting as something that was released an hour ago.

All of these factors flow into the relevance factor of a story, which then determines whether you see it or not.

How Facebook determines the order of your ads

Once the relevance scores have been calculated, Facebook has to decide in which order everything will be displayed. This part is simple: the stories are sorted from most relevant to least relevant.

Once a story is shown, it's locked in place. If you visit Facebook at 1:00 p.m., it will take into account all the potential stories since your last visit and show the most relevant ones. If you visit Facebook again at 3:00 p.m., it will take into account all possible stories from the past two hours. Any messages you see will be added to your news feed above the messages you saw last time you visited. So if you keep scrolling down you will come to the same old stories.

Where this approach falls short and how to fix it

The newsfeed algorithm is constantly evolving and updated. Every time you interact with a new story, Facebook logs these details and uses this information to determine which posts are more likely to interest you in the future.

CONNECTED:How to prioritize your news feed in Facebook for iOS

However, sometimes the algorithm can be wrong idea. Perhaps you have reason to hang out with someone for a short period of time, or a year after you split up, ex-girlfriends' posts are still showing up on your news feed first. If that's the problem, check out our guide on how to manually prioritize your news feed. You can choose some people to show up first and others to hide everything they post.