We human beings love shortcuts. From the time our distant ancestors began to walk upright, hacking was our way of life. If a Neanderthal hunter could find a quicker path to the hunting grounds, he might out-compete his neighbor for the annual mastodon haul.
Thousands of years of evolution have not dulled this impulse, and much good has come of it. The huge leaps in technology, as well as the great scientific discoveries of the last few centuries, were largely driven by the impulse to find faster, better, more efficient ways to get things done.
However, to slightly paraphrase Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings“: “Shortcuts sometimes make long delays.”
In this column, I’ll explain why shortcut “hacks” to get around or take advantage of the algorithms of social media platforms can end up causing unwanted delays in obtaining the results you want from your social media marketing.
What is a social media algorithm hack?
First, let me be clear about what I’m not referencing when I talk about algorithm hacks. I’m not talking about any overtly black hat, illegal or unethical tactics. I’m also not talking about doing anything that might violate the terms of service of a given platform.
Those practices certainly exist, but this column is about hacks that are much more innocent and do not involve any infiltration into a social platform or altering or spoofing of its code. Instead, the hacks I’m going to address are often touted as “best practices” or “growth hacks” and can be used by virtually anyone.
To get more specific, I’m talking about any tactics or practices that attempt to circumvent or overcome limits or restrictions on reach or follower growth built into a platform’s algorithms — particularly those algorithms that control what is shown in the platform’s feed and to whom.
Why did social networks develop feed algorithms?
Since most of the hacks in my crosshairs in this column have to do with countering the effects of social network algorithms, it might be useful to understand why these algorithms even exist in the first place.
When social media first became a thing, it held out a tantalizing promise that quickly attracted marketers: the potential to directly reach an unlimited audience with your marketing messages… for FREE!
Furthermore, social platforms encouraged business adoption by quickly adding brand-oriented profiles that often included special tools, analytics and capabilities enabling any company to create a scalable reach-machine.
It didn’t take long for marketers to kill the golden goose, as they too often do.
Enter content shock
It’s an unwritten but seemingly invariable law of marketing that when the cost of distribution is low, content quality goes down. At the same time, the quantity of content rises exponentially. This is the problem first explained by Mark Schaefer in his prescient 2014 blog rant titled Content Shock.
What Schaefer described as a crisis for content marketers, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter began to see as a user experience problem.
Networks apply the brakes
The growing glut of commercial content in social feeds was proving to be antithetical to the reasons most people joined social networks. Typical social media users sign up for a network for two primary reasons: to keep in touch with friends and family and to be entertained. A third reason might be to be more informed, with breaking news and analysis.
When too much commercial content gets into users’ streams, they can get annoyed and start using the platform less (or even worse, stop using it altogether). That’s obviously not a good thing from a social network’s point of view. But it gets worse.
In his January 2018 announcement about a major change to Facebook’s news feed algorithm, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg referenced research that showed people who get too much “passive content” (content that doesn’t draw them into “meaningful interactions” with others) actually have a poorer sense of well-being. Facebook has long known that unhappy users quickly become ex-users.
So, slowly but surely, most of the social networks have begun to apply some form of algorithmic control and filtering on their users’ feeds.
Some of it was relatively gentle. For example, Twitter’s feed is mostly still a chronological display of everything posted by any accounts a user follows. However, in February 2016, Twitter announced the introduction of an algorithm that would bring tweets of possible interest to a user to the top of their feed. I call this a more “gentle” algorithm, though, because users could opt in or out of it, and it only activated if the user had not visited their feed for a while.
In other cases, the algorithms dramatically changed the timelines of users. In Facebook’s case, what users see in their feed is entirely determined by algorithms, and almost no users see even close to everything that their friends post.
As a result of the application of these algorithms, and their continued tweaking, businesses have seen their organic reach on social networks decline sharply over the years.
Why do marketers use algorithm hacks?
If you followed my brief history of social media feed algorithms above, the answer to this question should be obvious. Marketers had become addicted to the free, unlimited organic reach provided by social media, and, when it began to dry up, like any addicts, they reacted in either despair or anger or both.
Also similarly to real addicts, those marketers began to pursue almost any means to bring back their “fix” of free reach.
These algorithmic hackers also had their dealers and pushers. Social media consultants, experts and tool creators increasingly shifted away from the time-proven fundamentals of real marketing to create and promote various tricks and hacks to try to bring back the “good old days.”
Parallels to SEO
In a number of ways, what was happening in the social media marketing world was a recapitulation of what had occurred in the world of search years before.
When search engines finally became useful tools and established themselves as the primary way most users access the web, it didn’t take long for businesses and marketers to realize there was gold in them thar hills. And so arose the SEO (search engine optimization) industry to help businesses get found in search.
In the beginning, search optimization was a relatively easy affair. Early search engines mostly functioned by matching up keywords entered by users with words that appeared on pages on the web. Put enough of those keywords on the right places on your pages, and you had a good chance of ranking high in search and bringing free traffic to your site.
But as more site owners began to chase the search engines, a similar thing happened to what we later saw happen on social networks, as described above. Content quality began to go down sharply, as site owners created content that wasn’t meant for humans but instead was aimed at attracting the search engines.
And so began the Cold War arms race between site owners and search engines that has existed ever since. The search engines invested heavily in…