Mental Floss a big winner after Facebook’s mysterious ‘high quality’ algorithm change

February 17, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

When Facebook announced in December that it was altering its News Feed algorithm to focus on “high quality content,” speculation centered on which sites might be in danger of excommunication as Facebook took aim at the viral bubble.

Was BuzzFeed’s silly clickbait a target, or would the site’s growing commitment to real news and longform save the domain from banishment? (It’s doing just fine.) What about Upworthy, the viral site that ruled Facebook in November with its widely mocked and mimicked “you won’t believe ____” headlines? (Business Insider declared it “crushed” after a December traffic dip, but a wider view of Quantcast data leads to a less dramatic conclusion.)

Meanwhile, some sites stood to gain, and one winner seems to be Mental Floss, a source of eminently shareable trivia, historical facts and answers to hundreds of questions you didn’t know you had.

Consider some recent changes that Mental Floss editors have observed:

  • Monthly Facebook referrals have nearly doubled, from 1.9 million in November to 3.7 million in both December and January, according to internal Google Analytics data.
  • Facebook likes have skyrocketed from around 200,000 in December to 500,000 today. That means Mental Floss has gained more likes over the past two months than it did over its first five years on Facebook.
  • Social referrals accounted for 38 percent of traffic in January, up from 35 percent in November, per Google Analytics.
  • Mental Floss found itself verified by Facebook in December as editors were beginning to notice the traffic growth.
  • Quantcast data indicate a sustained increase in unique visitors since December:


According to co-founder Will Pearson, Mental Floss had about 4 million monthly unique visitors at the beginning of 2013. This January, it crossed 10 million, corresponding with more referrals from all sources, including search, Reddit and YouTube, where a channel launched in March 2013 has more than 750,000 subscribers.

But Facebook is the most dramatic recent source of growth, leading Mental Floss to be more strategic about how it shares — but without overreacting to new-found favor from the capricious despot.

‘It’s clearly a Facebook-dominated world’

Echoing journalists’ sometimes disproportionate interest in Twitter, Mental Floss digital editor-in-chief Jason English said he historically viewed the two dominant social networks similarly.

“In my head, our Twitter presence was in the same ballpark with our Facebook presence, but even before this, Facebook always was the winner,” English said via phone. “Now it’s not even close.”

That doesn’t mean Mental Floss is being reactionary or deemphasizing other platforms now. Pearson said the magazine is slowly increasing the amount of content on the site without sacrificing the high quality that likely helped put it on Facebook’s radar.

The trick isn’t posting more often on Facebook, English said, but rather thinking hard about what he chooses to post: “We haven’t really changed too much of what we do except now we’re a little more careful about not wasting a Facebook post on something that not everyone’s going to be excited to share.”

More traffic from Facebook hasn’t led Mental Floss to tweet less; higher volume on Twitter makes sense because of how the platform works. Meanwhile, English has observed that the new Facebook News Feed sometimes means it’s actually better to post less frequently or space out content. He said older content seems to hang around the News Feed longer than it used to, so it’s not necessarily smart to post something fresh if it might bump down an older post with momentum behind it.

Mental Floss also shares different content on different platforms. For instance, the “Big Questions” series tends to perform well via search and Twitter, whereas lists and offbeat history features perform better on Facebook.

“[English] showed us that we need to approach each medium as if it were the only thing we were doing,” said Pearson. “We need to make each of those experiences a meaningful experience. If somebody only knows us through Facebook, what will their experience be?”

At the same time, Pearson said, “We’ve always been kind of averse to turning the site or our Facebook feed into a formula.” So Mental Floss is treating Facebook sharing as more of an art than a science. Given the volatility of Facebook traffic, it makes sense to play things by ear.

Said English: “We’re not counting on this going on forever.”

Related: Is Facebook’s latest News Feed algorithm really intended to save us from ourselves?


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