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Facebook’s latest News Feed change could push more publishers to Instant Articles

Facebook says it will use load time to determine what to show you. Instant Articles load really fast.

Two heavily tattooed Thai men sit in the back of a truck, each looking at his phone. David Longstreath / Getty Images

Facebook is once again updating its almighty News Feed algorithm, this time to take into account how quickly (or slowly) a web page loads after a user clicks on a link from their mobile device.

Facebook says it will soon start punishing stories that load slowly by decreasing their reach, and prioritize stories that load quickly for users of Facebook’s mobile app.

The company has a threshold for what constitutes a fast/acceptable load time and what doesn’t. Because that number will fluctuate, the company isn’t sharing it publicly, says Facebook product manager Greg Marra.

“It’s a pretty generous definition [of fast],” Marra explained without sharing exactly what that definition is. “Most of the things that you’re going to be reading on your phone are going to be considered fast in our definition.”

Regardless, Facebook says the change is meant to improve the user experience — no one likes waiting for pages to load.

But there may be another motive here: Instant Articles. Facebook wants to host publisher stories on its own website, and one of the major benefits of hosting your content on Facebook is that it’s supposed to load faster.

If load time will soon impact how many people see your post, publishers might be more inclined to use Instant Articles for fear that not doing so could hurt their distribution.

Marra says Facebook is not making this change specifically to benefit Instant Articles. But he admits that while Instant Articles don’t receive special treatment from Facebook’s algorithm, the faster load time of Instant Articles could help them appear higher in News Feed than links that send people outside of Facebook.

“We’re not making this update to prioritize Instant Articles,” Marra said, explaining that load time on Instant Articles will be valued in “exactly the same way” as load time for third-party links.

“In this case, Instant Articles do load pretty quickly,” he added.

Facebook has offered Instant Articles for more than two years, and many publishers haven’t loved the arrangement, primarily because they don’t make more money on Instant Articles than they would get by simply driving users to their own websites.

But Facebook is trying to make Instant Articles more appealing. It has offered more ad placements to help bring in more revenue, and its working on a paywall product to help publishers find more subscribers.

The new changes to News Feed will start to roll out in a month. In the meantime, Marra says Facebook will work with publishers to help them understand best practices for improving load time on mobile.

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