What’s Up with Upworthy?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine in the past year, you’ve been bombarded with Upworthy headlines:

“The most inspiring story you’ll read ever!”

“You won’t believe what this person did to confront some racist/horrible deed.”

“This latest corporate greed act will make you so angry.”

Those are not actual Upworthy headlines, but they are basically the same formula you see in the stories that populate in your feed.

What’s impressive about the site is its rapid growth (thanks to traffic from Facebook) in such a short period of time. At the end of last year, its traffic was up there with Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post.

Why is this content so popular? And more importantly, how did it get so popular on Facebook?

1. Staff write up to 25 headlines per story (Source: Kiss Metrics and Business Insider) and may release two versions and then change the headline based on which one gets better pageviews early on. With that amount of user testing on a headline, you’re bound to gain a ton of traffic.

2. They curate from social media, not from existing websites (Source: Business Insider), which means they are pulling from conversations and stories that are already what people are talking about.

3. The photo that goes with the article matters (Source: Kiss Metrics). We all see memes in our feed, amazing photos from friends, etc. and we all ‘like’ our friends photos more often than we like their posts. The better the photo with that crazy headline, the more people are going to share it.

So now that we’ve established that Upworthy is putting a lot of effort (probably more than most traditional news sites out there) into making sure you click on that content, here’s a primer on what’s been happening since they cracked the Facebook sharing code.

Spoiler alert: Everyone copied them, their traffic dropped and Facebook changed its news feed algorithm.

Towards the end of last year, traffic started dropped for brand pages across Facebook. When I was still working for Patch at the end of last year, we saw the same thing, as did other brands in AOL.

The same thing happened to Upworthy, with the unique visitor number to the site dropping by almost half from November to January (reports from Newsy and Business Insider).

According to a release from Facebook, the changes to the algorithm are meant to show more “high quality content” in the news feed, which again according to Facebook is:

“-is the content genuinely interesting to you or is trying to game the news feed distribution?”

“-would you complain about seeing this content in your news feed?”

Those are just some of the points emphasized in Facebook’s criteria, but when you look at those reasons, you could easily apply that to Upworthy.

As an aside it’s important to note that Business Insider shares some data showing that sites similar to Upworthy (complete clones like Distractify or Buzzfeed) did not see as precipitous of a drop in their traffic.

So what do news sites take away from this rise and fall of traffic, all at the mercy of Facebook?

Anyone who publishes on the web that traffic from links shared on Facebook is a huge boon to pageviews  (referral traffic to media sites from Facebook grew 170 percent year to year). At Patch, we saw a ton of traffic from posts shared on the Faceook pages for each local site.

But depending on what type of content is being shared on Facebook in the same time, how it’s being presented and who is clicking on it are all factors that determine how many clicks a story will get.

It’s a game that’s constantly changing, and as the Atlantic said, Upworthy is playing the same clickbait game as other news media outlets (namely the Huffington Post) have been playing for years.

So if you’re sick of seeing Upworthy  headlines in your news feed, take heart that they may be diminishing, but be wary of the next upstart who figures out the algorithm and then tries to beat it.

One final link for you, from the New Yorker, with the title: “The Six Things that Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate You.”

What a clever headline.