New Transparency in Major Social & Search Algorithms

Big Tech Adds Transparency into Social & Search Algorithms
(Last Updated On: June 11, 2021)

As technology continues eating the world, we continue learning about the power of algorithms. The digital marketing community is well aware of the various black boxes that Google and Facebook control. Over time, we learn about a few important factors that help manipulate these significant social and search algorithms. But, recently, the major players such as Facebook and Google started sharing more transparency into what drives what we see on search results and our news feed.

Another popular saying that emerged in the digital world is that information wants to be free. So, more transparency helps marketers and consumers understand what drives the content we see and consume. Additionally, as marketers, it makes us more informed about how to leverage these social and search algorithms to help consumers find our content and learn about our companies. However, as Axios notes, these steps towards transparency, while good, are not going to share the “secret sauce” anytime soon.

“While these efforts to be transparent are helpful, they don’t usually provide the full picture about how the platforms’ algorithms work, in part because they don’t want their systems to be gamed by bad actors.”

But, more transparency means more information. As a result, we can learn about how our understanding of what drives these algorithms are confirmed or not.

Facebook Algorithm Insights

The News Feed is one of the most powerful social algorithms in the world. Every day, billions of people check out Facebook to catch up with the world. In the current COVID world, Facebook has certainly helped many people remain connected to friends and family, while also driving a lot of diversion in the world. In the recent update, Facebook shared some insights into how News Feed populates content for a typical user.

“How do you pick the overarching value for an ecosystem the size of Facebook? We want to provide the people using our services with long-term value. How much does seeing this friend’s running video or reading an interesting article create value for Juan? We think the best way to assess whether something is creating long-term value for someone is to pick metrics that are aligned with what people say is important to them. So we survey people about how meaningful they found an interaction with their friends or whether a post is worth their time to make sure our values reflect what people say they find meaningful.”

Facebook shares more insights into their famous social algorithm by noting the various items that factor into the News Feed aggregator.

  • Inventory
  • Individual Prediction Scores
  • Aggregate Prediction

Essentially, when a user logs into Facebook, the algorithm queries all of the content from friends and pages to create inventory. Then, based on previous actions, such as likes, shares and comments, each of the individual pieces of receives a prediction score. Finally, the posts that score the highest will be shown in your News Feed. Obviously, there are more details and as Axios noted, the true factors that drive engagement and interest remain in the “black box.”

What This Means For Marketers

But, for marketers, the transparency confirms what we believe to be true about social algorithms and validates the current social media strategy. Creating engaging posts that resonate with your core audience remains the best way to show up on News Feeds.

Furthermore, as the creator economy continuously expands and leverages Facebook properties, such as Instagram, Facebook executives want to increase their engagement. How? Facebook announced a new monetization method for creators and influencers by adding shopping directly within the app.

“Instagram will begin testing a native affiliate tool that will let creators earn commissions for purchases made by followers based on their recommendations. Sellers set their own commission rates, and affiliate posts will be labeled “Eligible for Commission” so users know their purchase will support the creator.”

Google Algorithm Insights

Google routinely makes public announcements around core changes to their search algorithm, but recently added some more information towards transparency. As opposed to the Facebook algorithm update, Google aims at providing more context around the search results themselves.

“Next to most results on Google, you’ll begin to see a menu icon that you can tap to learn more about the result or feature and where the information is coming from. With this additional context, you can make a more informed decision about the sites you may want to visit and what results will be most useful for you.”

social and search algorithm updates

Essentially, Google incorporated general information (primarily pulled from Wikipedia) about the site that produced the search result. Additionally, for more action oriented searches, such as jobs, then Google will provide descriptions about the company or another relevant item to help searchers learn about the source of the result.

What This Means For Marketers

For marketers, the added transparency is less important than remaining aware of core algorithm updates. However, the inclusion of Wikipedia pages means that you should create and/or review the Wikipedia page of your clients. In particular, as many smaller businesses have the ability to rank for long tail keywords, you want to ensure that the new contextual information Google provides is accurate. And, if not, then review the source of that context and make any updates.

What is driving the algorithm transparency?

There are two main drivers behind the newfound transparency of these social and search algorithms. Apple and probably regulations are driving these efforts. At a high level, governmental officials are looking into the current data practices across the globe. For example, in Europe, GDPR regulations puts more rules and restrictions on data collection. Additionally, in the US, the state of California also released more restrictions on tracking consumers via the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). As a result, consumers must check off more compliance boxes that offers tracking consent. However, in this enhanced fight over data, Apple is making a stand against other big tech companies. Additionally, due to the role iPhones play in the mobile market, the company can institute their own data collection rules that impacts Google and Facebook.

  • Apple iOS update

In a recent interview with GQ, Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed how Apple was picking a fight with the “data-industrial complex” with some new features in the Apple ecosystem. Importantly, due to its breadth and depth, if Apple wants to enforce data rules or implement different tracking techniques, any company that wants to leverage the App store must comply with these rules.

Privacy Nutrition Label

Apple recently released iOS 14, which includes two new privacy and data collection updates that force changes to companies like Facebook. To start, Apple introduced a “privacy nutrition label” within the App store. This section allows consumers to see a summary of the privacy practices of an app (prior to download). Also, it helps consumers learn what the app developer will or may do with your data.

App Tracking & Transparency

Additionally, and the more important update to companies like Facebook is the app tracking controls and transparency feature. The new privacy controls require developers to get consumers permission prior to tracking. Additionally, the feature allows consumers to see the apps that have tracking permission within your preferences, which makes it easy to update.

“We could see that this digital footprint piece could be abused in a way. We weren’t sure exactly how, but we knew that it would not be good. And unfortunately, that has played out in so many areas…This is about Apple and Apple really giving the user, empowering the user to make a choice. Apple’s always been about democratizing things, you know, democratizing technology — you used to have to be a gazillionaire to make a movie. Now you can make a movie on your iPhone. We love that. We love democratizing things like this, and we love democratizing the data down to the individual, where the individual is deciding whether they choose to share it or not.”

Essentially, Apple aims to put the power back in the hands of the consumer. However, for some pundits, the interest in data collection may align with the larger pending regulations. Although Apple generally protects more consumer data than others, the timing is a noteworthy aspect of the new features. Ultimately, Apple may be making more public announcements about data protection to create some differentiation between them and big tech. But, these new features do allow consumers more personalization in what they are comfortable revealing.

What This Means For Marketers

For marketers, these developments are certainly something to monitor. There are pros and cons to data collection, which Facebook will routinely note to regulators and the general public.

  • Probable US Regulation

In the last half decade or so, governments have learned about the potential dangers of excessive data collection. As a result, they aimed new rules and regulations at curbing some of this behavior. At a national level, the US has yet to institute anything as large in scope as the European GDPR. However, at the state level, the CCPA makes strides at curbing excessive data collection.

Interestingly, the Apple privacy features and CCPA seemingly aim at personal rights vs overt restrictions. For example, the CCPA creates the following rights:

As with Apple, these rules continue to allow tracking, but make it easier for the consumer to opt out of data collection.

What This Means For Marketers

For marketers, data collection and tracking certainly impact potential avenues to reach the right consumer. It seems certain that more regulations are on the way. However, only time will tell if the US will mirror privacy rights vs data restrictions like other international governments. If the focus remains on rights, then following the CCPA playbook seems like a manageable solution. Adding a third party tracking notification creates an automated path to engage consumers with the privacy decision. More often than not, consumers click accept and move on. This likely means not many major changes to the data collection practices, but the flexibility of consumers to choose.