Wherever you find an algorithm at play on the Internet, there’s a good chance that some people (read: a lot of people) will try to game the system. On some level, this is nothing more than strategy. This is where we find all sorts of perfectly permissible search engine optimization techniques. And then you’ve got the “black hat SEO” people who try to exploit the system for their own benefit.
Google inevitably catches on their antics, adjusting its search algorithm accordingly, and lays the smack down with a new update. That’s how so many people came to despise penguins and pandas so much. That’s just the name of the game and the cycle just keeps renewing itself. The exact same thing happens with social media.
And no conversation about social media would be complete without at least some mention of Facebook. Way back in the before times, Facebook’s news feed was simply arranged in reverse chronological order. It was utterly a level playing field that you couldn’t really game, because the newest updates would always display at the top. And then the algorithm kicked in.
Brands and businesses had to adapt their strategy accordingly. Then, Facebook decided to severely limit the reach of business pages, totally screwing you over and almost turning the platform into a pay-to-play kind of scenario. But they said that if your posts get good engagement, then they’d naturally filter back into the news feed for the people who “like” or “follow” your page.
That’s good, right?
Well, it didn’t take long before marketers (and bloggers and everyone else) started to game the system to up their engagement numbers. That’s why at the end of 2017, Facebook announced that they’re fighting back against what they call “engagement bait.”
Just as they cracked down on clickbait titles — you won’t believe what happens next! — they are doing the same thing with posts that try to “bait” Facebook users into engaging with a post that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
This “engagement bait” takes on five different forms.
- Vote Baiting: You’ve surely seen this on Facebook. A number of options are shown in an image with different reactions (like, love, wow, etc.) associated with each one. You’re then encouraged to “vote” on which one you prefer using the corresponding reaction.
- React Baiting: This is very similar to vote baiting, except it usually gets the user to self-identify as being part of one group or the other. If you share a post about pet lovers, you might say “like if you’re a cat person and love if you’re a dog person.”
- Share Baiting: Most commonly used in contests, this is where you might require a user to share a post in order to enter your giveaway. “Share this post with a friend for a chance to win.”
- Tag Baiting: This is where you explicitly ask Facebook users to “tag a friend” either in an image or in the comments. “Tag a friend who could probably lose a few pounds.”
- Comment Baiting: Generating comments on your posts are good when those comments are authentic. Comment baiting, on the other hand, is when you already tell people to leave a specific comment for no real reason in particular. “Comment with OH YEAH if you’re looking forward to the weekend.”
Basically, Facebook is saying that you shouldn’t try to trick users into using the platform in ways that it wasn’t intended. There’s no real reason why a “sushi” could be represented by a “sad” face, while “fried chicken” could be represented by a “wow” face. On the other hand, if users provide an authentic reaction to your post, that is perfectly valid engagement. You might share some news about your company, for example, and ask what people think. If they’re impressed, they might use the “wow” face. If they dislike what you’re doing, they might use the “angry” face.
Facebook says that pages that “use engagement bait tactics in their posts should expect their reach on these posts to decrease.” Instead, you’re encouraged to “focus on posting relevant and meaningful stories that do not use engagement bait tactics.”
If you want to take advantage of Facebook’s benefits, you have to be willing to play by their rules. This may ultimately be better for users in the long run, but if nothing else, it once again demonstrates that you shouldn’t build your business on rented land if you want to have full control over how your content is distributed and consumed.