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Facebook Helps Paid Posts Float To Top Of Feeds

Facebook users often are left wondering at the robotic reasoning behind the choice of highlighted stories at the top of their news feed, but at least most of them get there because they are attracting a lot of interest, or comments, or shares. Now, Facebook users also will have to watch out for posts that float to the top because an advertiser paid to place them there.

So far, most of the grumbling about these new sponsored stories focuses on Facebook's decision to ambiguously label them "featured", rather than "sponsored," which is how Facebook originally said the feature would be rolled out. The new feature also attempts to make promoted items hopscotch across networks of friends, echoing Facebook's previous efforts to create distinctively social advertising models such as Beacon, a feature Facebook introduced in 2007 and ultimately withdrew with apologies. Beacon automatically notified users' friends of their purchases on other sites, in a way many found invasive and inappropriate.

The instant reaction to this latest change seems to be somewhat negative as well. One of my Facebook contacts said of sponsored stories, "As a marketer, I love them. As an individual, I can't stand them," (but later admitted he was speaking from the gut rather than having really studied the issue).

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What Facebook really seems to be doing is providing marketers with a way of cutting through the sometimes-overwhelming activity on the Facebook home page of a user with a lot of connections, now complicated by a news feed broken into highlighted stories, stories grouped according to subject, and a news ticker forever ticking on the side of the screen.

According to Facebook's explanation of how featured stories work, the effect is essentially an amplification of the way the social network normally works.

Here's how Facebook explains it:

Businesses can pay to feature a post so there's a better chance you'll notice it.

A quick example of how it works:

-- Say you like your gym's Facebook page.

-- Some friends see the story in their news feeds, others might miss it.

-- The owner of the gym can pay to feature the story so your friends are more likely to see it.

In other words, businesses are paying to boost the ranking of a news feed story, but the story is still the result of a user action. If I understand right, the operators of Facebook business pages can also pay to make it more likely that people who have liked their pages will see updates they have posted, rather than taking their chances with the Facebook algorithm for highlighted stories.

This is a bit like paying for placement of a search advertisement targeted against a given keyword, rather than trusting that the "organic" wonderfulness of your content and the links you've attracted to it will get you to the top of the Google search results. Most marketers would agree that getting to the top of the organic search results is better, if you can do it, but they will break down and pay for placement when necessary.

The criticism of Facebook over how it labels sponsored stories echoes similar criticisms of how well Google (and, earlier in the game, Overture) distinguished between organic and sponsored links.

One of the ways Google tried to remain true to the spirit of search was by ordering advertisements partly by their popularity, not just by how much the advertiser was willing to pay. It seems to me Facebook is attempting to do something similar by making these sponsored news stories a part of the social experience, not an intrusion on it. Facebook says it will also aim to tune the system so most users do not see more than one sponsored story per day.

Facebook users who see the reach of items they wanted to share anyway extended, thanks to an advertiser's largesse, might learn to love sponsored stories.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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