On July 17th, Facebook implemented a policy change to no longer permit platforms and systems making Facebook posts the ability to change the preview data (thumbnail images, headline, and caption) that accompanies a link. This is a big policy change for them that wasn’t implemented with very much notice ahead of time to their partners and significantly affects social media platforms and companies like ours. Let’s talk about what the change means and why it was made, but first..
How did it work before?
In the halcyon days of early last week, you were able to post any image and caption alongside a link, even if the image didn’t appear on the linked website and the caption had nothing to do with the linked content. This meant I could say, post a legitimate link to NASA on my Facebook page, but attach my own image of a former1 company dog beating me at beer pong and caption it with my own inanity.
All in good fun, but now I’ve missed my opportunity and can no longer get all the likes and space controversy. Why? Fake news. The phrase that litters recent headlines fake and real has been a sore spot for Facebook of late, as people often don’t click into articles to read them – but do retain the headline they read. In this instance you’re (probably?) not likely to think we’re sending out rocket ships with drunk pets, and if you click through you’ll know I made the whole thing up, but something less ridiculous that merely makes an implication the actual article didn’t could (and has) done some real damage. At their F8 conference last month, Facebook announced that to combat this, link metadata (the image and captions) that appear alongside a link will not be customizable.
How does it work now?
Facebook has long used their open graph meta tags to determine these preview options when you didn’t specify it with a link post – these are the images and captions you’ll see appear when posting directly on the Facebook platform as well. Now they’re what Facebook will accompany a link post with even if you ask them to display something different. If you’re trying to post links to your own site, this could still be okay! If it’s your content, you can specify what image and caption you’d like Facebook to use with these meta tags (in fact, you probably should have been doing so before this change anyway). There are built-in features or plugins for most CMS and website publishing software systems2 that give you control of what your site will publish for these settings to look into. If you’re posting links to a site you’re not in control of though, you just have to accept what Facebook and the publisher of that content want you to see.
How much should I care?
Well, it kind of stinks. If you check out the comments3 of Facebook’s announcement post on their developer blog, people are pretty upset. They bring up a number of points, claiming it won’t actually stem the tide of fake news as Facebook claims anyway, that it’s bad for small businesses that don’t have particularly optimized websites, and that the website administrators that are often in control of the meta tags on websites aren’t the ones creating the content. Additionally, Facebook often gives two years worth of notice before a platform change like this, but in this instance only gave a few weeks worth of a heads up. All in all if you’ve been following the heat that Facebook’s been getting in the news about this, you understand why they needed to take swift action, but if you’re responsible for promoting your company on Facebook, you’re also probably a little steamed.
Is that it?
Maybe not! Facebook did say “We also understand that many publishers have workflows that rely on overwriting link preview metadata to customize how their content appears to audiences on Facebook. We’re committed to a solution that supports them.” This wasn’t the only approach they could have taken, as an example on the Facebook platform itself you can still (as of the time of writing this) select between images that appear on the page, as they know they’re not fake. In fact on our platform, we ingest the content of a link to pre-select only appropriate preview images appearing on it that make for good thumbnails. Were Facebook to have instead (or in the future) allowed only appropriate custom preview images instead of disallowing them wholesale, this change wouldn’t have affected us at all! In the end we’re hoping Facebook’s eventual solution once again allows us to select the content we’d think best promotes our clients, but in the meantime we adapt.
1 – Don’t worry the dog is fine, former as in Bentley has since moved on from SocialMadeSimple. The social media world is cutthroat when you’re a capable dog with 2-3 years of agency experience.
3 – Generally yes, don’t read the comments on a site, but in this instance it’s mostly developers barking about this change.