So: after months of cratering organic reach for brands’ Facebook pages, reports surfaced in mid-March confirming that the changes would be permanent. For years, Facebook had been touting its Pages feature as a way for brands, celebrities and other public figures to connect directly to their audience, with posts organically appearing in the news feeds of users who had Liked the page in question. Virtually everyone bought in, and Facebook has become a vital part of most companies’ digital marketing efforts. Up to now, a large part of that came free of charge. No more.
This is a dramatic change to the status quo whose implications are still uncertain. For companies and individuals that have come to depend on Facebook to reach communities of fans and customers, it could significantly impact their bottom line. And Facebook, for its part, doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of sympathy for anyone who complains.
Is anyone really surprised by this, though? The question for Facebook has always been how to turn its unprecedented global reach into money, and its IPO in 2012 means it has shareholders to keep happy. Its revenue stream is based almost entirely on advertisements. And while it’s been phenomenally successful in that regard ($2.59 billion in revenue in Q4 of last year), who can blame it for going after more? Maybe its plan wasn’t quite so cynical as “make brands dependent, then pull the rug out and start charging them.” But why would we be surprised that it finally did? If anything, it would have been shocking if Facebook hadn’t.
The cost of Facebook’s new policy
We can take a look at some data to figure out a rough estimate of what this might actually cost. So far, large brands with more than half a million “likes” are the ones most affected, so let’s start there.
Pages with more than 500,000 likes had around a 4% organic reach as of October 2013 (all pages had about a 12% reach). Four percent of 500,000 is 20,000. Average cost per thousand impressions (CPM) to promote a post in early 2013 ranged from $0.15 to $6.27 depending on the type. For a Page post–the kind of organic reach Facebook is specifically cutting down on–it was $4. (Overall average CPM also varied by industry space, from $0.10 for dating to $9.08 for sports, but let’s not overcomplicate things.)
So, assuming that organic reach of Pages stays at 2% (which it probably won’t; a lot of analysts predict it will drop to essentially zero) the cost to get a Page update in front of as many people as it did before is, on average, $40 (10,000 impressions free, and 10,000 at $4/1,000). Even if organic reach eventually hits zero you’re still only dropping $80. Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad!
Okay, but that $40 only gets one post out. If you’re a brand posting once a day, that rises to $1,120 per month (we’re being charitable and assuming it’s February), $2,240 if organic reach hits zero. That’ll be higher if you’re posting more than once a day, but still–not too bad!
Except, as any advertiser knows, CPM is based on a bidding system, and every other brand is now vying for that same space it used to reach organically, and willing to pay for it too. Assuming Facebook wants to limit the number of sponsored posts that appear in a user’s News Feed–which, duh, it does, because it wants to keep users, not drive them away–there’s suddenly going to be a lot of competition for limited real estate. That $4 you were paying for a thousand Impressions is going to rise. Substantially. And, oh by the way, if you were promoting any pages already to increase their organic reach beyond 4%, that cost just spiked, too.
Importantly, this isn’t going to change the Facebook experience of your everyday user (arguably, it will make it better, which Facebook contends is the point). They’ll still see posts from their friends in their News Feed, but the third-party content is going to be a little different. In addition to cutting back on branded Pages, Facebook has mimicked Google’s commitment to “high-quality” content and is moving towards privileging longer-form articles from trusted news sources, squeezing out outlets like Upworthy that have built a business on gaming Facebook’s algorithms.
So. As a brand, either you’re stuck paying through the nose just to keep Facebook traffic where it was already, or you’re seeing a huge hit in your traffic. Either way, it’s impacting your bottom line. You also, maybe, are a little bit miffed at Facebook for changing the rules of the game so drastically, and worried that they might do so again in the future. Where do you turn to make up that traffic?
SEO: a sustainable alternative
SEO and organic search visibility remain one of the most viable and sustainable ways of reaching potential customers, and Facebook’s recent ad policy changes and algorithm updates underscore this. Google, as it happens, also depends on ads for its survival, and is notorious for sudden algorithm changes. However, it differs from Facebook in one key respect.
Crucially, Google’s viability as a company is contingent on its quality as a search engine. The majority of the approximately $50 billion it made in 2013 came from its AdWords program. But the way it delivers those ads is vastly different from Facebook’s targeting. Facebook injects its ads into its user experience (the News Feed), targeting based on a variety of factors gleaned from user behavior and personal information. Google’s AdWords, by contrast, seeks to pair ads with search results. An ad’s success is predicated on Google’s ability to a) deliver search results that satisfy user intent and b) pair ads with those search results that someone making that query might reasonably be interested in.
In other words, Google makes its money based on how well its algorithm answers search queries. And, just as important, its users have to trust that their searches will return what they’re looking for.
Google can charge you for AdWords, and it can do everything in its power (the Knowledge Graph, etc.) to answer your query without having you leave its page (keeping ads in front of your eyes). But it must always return organic results, and it can’t charge you to appear in those results without eroding both search quality and trust.
Calling Google predictable would be foolish. But, knowing its ultimate goal, it’s possible for experienced SEOs to anticipate where its algorithm is heading–directions that it frequently, if obtusely, telegraphs. (There’s a reason why every video Matt Cutts releases leads to a million articles parsing his words like he’s a high-school crush.) That means that a forward-thinking digital marketing campaign can leave you well-positioned to weather future algorithm updates, not to mention escape a manual penalty if Google turns its attention to your site’s backlink profile.
Facebook’s great advantage has always been the ability to reach a huge number of people very cheaply. Even though promoted Pages only have a click-through rate (CTR) of just over 2%, who cares, if you can cheaply get them in front of so many eyes? But now that advantage is likely gone, or at the very least significantly weakened, and brands should reevaluate where their marketing budget goes.
The CTR for the top spot in Google search results? It depends on the type of query, but it’s generally understood to be around 35%. The same number of Impressions yields more than 15 times the clicks as Facebook–and more than 15 times the traffic and potential conversions. And that’s just organic traffic, not taking into account the ancillary benefits of your SEO outreach campaign.
Because good SEO is about more than just moving a site up the SERPs. It’s about identifying and reaching communities of potential customers and brand advocates. It’s about building trust and relationships and making sure your content gets in front of the eyes of people who matter, whether they’re customers or influencers in your brand’s space. It’s about providing a flawless user experience that helps shape the conversation once users have left your website. You’ll move up in the rankings, but you’ll also reach your audience, bring in new customers, reap the benefits of direct referral traffic through relevant backlinks, and enhance your brand’s profile.
Facebook’s changes should be a wakeup call trumpeting the need for a diversified approach to digital marketing, and SEO should be an important facet of any company’s campaign. SEO still provides unmatched ROI, not to mention sustainable value that an ad campaign can’t match. Companies that have been enjoying Facebook gratis should reconsider their approach. How much of their limited resources do they want to allocate to a company that can change the way they reach (or don’t reach) potential customers on a whim–and might those resources be better invested in an arena where the playing field, though challenging, is more level?