How the Facebook Algorithm Works In Plain English

Every year, Facebook holds a gathering of web developers, marketers, and others to show how things work and inform them of what’s new and upcoming. They never fail to offer some extremely valuable information for those trying to demystify the social platform. This year was no exception.

F8 2015 was all about answering some of the greatest Facebook mysteries and discussing the future of the newsfeed. Arguably, one of the best pieces of information was a plain English explanation of how the newsfeed algorithm works.

Don’t forget the basics

As marketers, we often think of Facebook as having a massive, complicated bank of code that tries to manipulate our content. We try to outsmart it and think the “trick” to success is to figure out every nuance and adjust our posts to fit its mathematical formula.

That might have worked back in the day when Mr. Zuckerberg was sitting in his college dorm room creating the first go-round of the platform, but not anymore. You see, marketers, the thing that most people forget is that computer logic is created by humans and that logic attempts to mimic human logic as closely as possible.

So, what’s our best strategy for Facebook success? Human Logic. Plain and simple. Straight from the source. The overriding theme coming from the presenters at F8 2015 was nothing more than, provide interesting, timely content that your audience wants to consume.

Instead, we try to break down the building blocks of that picture and interpret every speck of algorithm we can grasp. 

Do we really need to know each case-by-case example of how Facebook treats our content? It was clear that Facebook was telling us, leave that to the developers. Focus on making your content relevant and timely. So often, people make the mistake of skipping right over the basics and jumping to the master level of figuring out how Facebook works.

We need to stop and ask ourselves if what we’re providing is something that will truly benefit our audience. I’m guilty of making this mistake and even the world’s top marketers are guilty of this every once in a while.

It’s not as complicated as you may think

But, only after we’ve mastered the basics can we pick apart the rest of the details. One session of F8 broke down the newsfeed in plain English. I’m telling you, the algorithm is brilliantly simple. It goes like this…

You are individually subscribed to content from your friends, pages, and groups. Every time you log into Facebook and view your newsfeed, the items posted most recently are scored according to your history of interaction with those people, brands, and content similar in nature. Each piece of content has a different score for you than it would for your friend because your behavior and interaction is different than your friends.FBnewsfeed

Once scored, the content is displayed in your newsfeed in ranking order – highest score first, down to lowest, depending on how much content you scroll down and consume during that session. Once you’re finished, your session’s content and ranking are saved in your timeline history as a block. You’ll always see that content in the same order when you come back later to view.FBnewsfeed1

The next time you log in, a new session is started and content is scored and ranked in your feed. It’s placed at the top of your feed as a new batch and once you’ve reached the end of the content from this session, you’re served your previous session’s block of ranked content.FBnewsfeed2

How to tell if your content is relevant

If it’s really that simple, why do we seem to have so much trouble making our content successful on Facebook? I think it lies in our interpretation of what’s relevant and interesting to our audience.

Usually people are too wrapped up in themselves and assume they know what their audience wants to see. That’s a fatal mistake. Instead of assuming we know, we need to ask our audience and spend a great deal of time observing them to note their behaviors and habits. And listen to them. Ask questions, then just sit back and listen. Only after we’ve done that, is it time to start connecting the dots to educate them and provide solutions.

Facebook announced a bunch of new features and updates, as well as some exciting things coming for video. It’s great if you’re a techy person and are interested in learning about all of these things, but if not, don’t get bent out of shape. Leave that to the developers and marketing nerds who can simplify things for you.

I didn’t count the number of times a presenter said something along the lines of, “provide interesting content that your audience wants to consume”, but if I had, I’m sure it would break world records. That’s the point Facebook was trying to convey. You focus on learning about what your audience wants, and give it to them, and let their developers worry about the rest.

What do you overthink when it comes to Facebook and Social Media? 


  1. Melanie Toland on March 27, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    It is actually more complicated than that, I think. Do they not give more weight to certain types of content and methods of posting; give lesser weight to posts by taking into account promotional language, redundant posts and language, non-preferred 3rd party tools, etc.? I am hesitant to oversimplify the algorithm because you could be making very simple mistakes that are not giving your really good content a chance in hell of being seen while those with mediocre content know the fine details of posting to make up for it.

    • Kelly on March 30, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for this perspective, Melanie. However, you might be missing the point. What Facebook was telling us (their emphasis was on focusing on relevant content, not mine), is to take off our marketer hats and think like our audience. Yes, there are different weights given to many of these items – that’s what makes up the score each piece content receives for each individual person. But, if we’re only focusing on these tweaks to the score, we’re ignoring whether our content is actually something our audience wants to read or not.

      You’re still thinking like a marketer. We know the algorithm is sensitive to click-baits and tactics to increase chances of getting read, so your hypothesis is actually the opposite. Really good content should get seen more, regardless of whether or not a title is tweaked exactly to “outsmart” the algorithm and likewise, mediocre content (from people know exactly what the algorithm is looking for) will organically fall away because FB is treating content like a human would. Mediocre content will be seen as mediocre.

      If someone’s only manipulating the small details, there may be an initial spike in clicks, but it will be corrected quickly once FB realizes it’s not good content.

      Bottom line…make sure your audience wants the content and it’s relevant first. This is what will get engagement (80%). Then worry about small details to adjust things like headlines, images, minor word variations, etc. (20%) This will only affect things marginally.