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Publishers might have to start paying Facebook if they want anyone to see their stories

Facebook’s latest test should terrify publishers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address onstage at Facebook’s F8 Conference. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Facebook may make it harder for people to see publishers’ stories, unless those publishers pay to promote them.

As part of a new test in six countries, Facebook is taking content from publishers and businesses out of its main feed. Instead, those posts will exist in a separate, hard-to-find feed that Facebook recently launched for discovering new stuff, called the “Explore Feed.”

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The Explore Feed’s purpose is to show users posts from people or publishers they don’t follow, in the hope that they’ll find new stuff they wouldn’t otherwise see. In some countries, though, the social giant is also testing putting all publisher content in this secondary feed, even if you do follow those publishers.

Facebook says the point is to give people two feeds: One with stuff from their friends and family, and the other from businesses and publishers. Here’s the full statement from Facebook:

“With all of the possible stories in each person's feed, we always work to connect people with the posts they find most meaningful. People have told us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family, so we are testing two separate feeds, one as a dedicated space with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated space for posts from Pages. To understand if people like these two different spaces, we will test a few things, such as how people engage with videos and other types of posts. These tests will start in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. We have no current plans to roll this out globally.”

Though Facebook claims it doesn’t plan to roll this out globally right now, the fact that Facebook is even testing it should be terrifying for publishers, almost all of whom rely heavily on Facebook’s News Feed for distribution. The new Explore Feed is not easy to find. It’s buried on the lefthand rail on Facebook’s web version, or in the “Explore” tab on the iOS app. In my case, it took three taps from the News Feed in order to find it.

Putting publisher content that far from the main feed would be a big deal. In Slovakia, for example, where this new test is under way, a journalist wrote on Medium over the weekend that organic reach for publishers fell by “two-thirds” after Facebook moved Page posts to the Explore Feed. The Medium post was titled, “Biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen.”

And regardless of whether or not Facebook chooses to roll this out fully, it’s yet another reminder of how important Facebook has become for the media world, and for news distribution in particular. (Two-thirds of Americans claim to get some news from social media.) Facebook has a long history of changing the rules on a whim, leaving publishers scrambling to keep up.

It’s possible Facebook will see the same data publishers are seeing in Slovakia and decide hiding publisher Pages isn’t a good idea after all. It’s also possible the opposite could happen. Most Facebook changes start as tests before they are turned on for good, like when the company started testing autoplay videos with the sound on last August. It rolled it out to everyone in February.

Update: Facebook exec Adam Mosseri, who oversees News Feed, shed a little more light on the test in a series of tweets on Monday. He listed a number of metrics Facebook looks at when determining whether to roll out a test more broadly.

“We look at what people say and what people do — do they comment, like and share more? are they happier when asked? do they spend more time?” he tweeted.

Mosseri also said that a decision on whether or not to roll out the two-feed system to everyone is likely still a ways off.

“Most ranking changes are tested for days or weeks, but given how significant a change this is we’ll likely run it for months,” he tweeted.

Update: Mosseri also posted to Facebook’s blog on Monday to reiterate that the company still hasn’t decided if it will expand the two-feed test to everyone — and all publishers.

“The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content,” he wrote. “We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further. There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore.”

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