Facebook found yet another measurement error

Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Another metrics misfire from Facebook, which today admitted to undercounting traffic from some publishers who posted their content to its site using the company’s “instant articles” platform.

Instant articles are stories that media organizations such as the New York Times and National Geographic publish directly to Facebook, rather than posting content to Facebook that links back to their own sites. When Facebook introduced the publishing format in May 2015, it said instant articles would load faster and provide a better reading experience for users. Publishers can monetize instant articles by directly selling and serving ads, or using Facebook’s Audience Network to do so.

Facebook is the single biggest driver of traffic to news sites, a role that has allowed it to amass tremendous influence over the media and, by extension, the public. A single tweak to the news feed can cause traffic to digital outlets to gyrate unpredictably and lead them to change their publishing strategies. And a single error in how Facebook reports its publishing data can produce discrepancies in readership that send shudders through media organizations and their advertisers.

The error disclosed today by Facebook caused mobile traffic from iPhone users to be undercounted from Sept. 20 to Nov. 30, the company said. For several big publishers—including the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Mic—that led to traffic that looked 10% to 20% lower during that time period, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Journal also reported that for most publishers involved, the data error affected less than 1% of their traffic.

This type of disclosure has suddenly become commonplace. Just last week, Facebook revealed it found errors in the way it measures engagement with live videos, as well as links to external sites. In September, Facebook disclosed that it had been giving marketers an inflated number for the average time being spent viewing online clips. That led the Association of National Advertisers to call for a third-party to audit and accredit Facebook’s metrics. Then, the social-media site said on Nov. 16 that it had discovered bugs and reporting errors in four products: “page insights” (analytics for managers of Facebook pages), its video platform, instant articles, and ”analytics for apps” (what it sounds like). In addition to disclosing those discrepancies, Facebook said it was working on “a new internal review process to ensure our metrics are clear and up to date” and to communicate more frequently about updates.

Facebook’s operations are largely viewed by the outside world as a black box, if a particularly tech savvy and algorithmic one. But the recent disclosures around misreported data, and the ongoing, heated discussion of fake news, are likely to lead to further—and louder—calls for transparency.