Getting Your WordPress Website Ready for Facebook Instant Articles

With Facebook’s Instant Articles program open to all content publishers as of April 12, 2016, now is the time to get your WordPress website set up to push posts to Facebook using the proper markup.

More than one billion people log onto Facebook from a mobile device every month, and the performance of content viewed using Facebook’s mobile app matters more than ever. Facebook launched Instant Articles in May of 2015 as a way to speed up delivery of content and provide the sort of immersive experience mobile app users expect. Initially, the program was limited to a select group of well-known publishers like BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and BBC News. However, as of April 2016, the program is open to all content publishers.

Facebook creates Instant Articles when a properly formatted RSS feed is associated with an approved Facebook Page using Facebook’s Business Manager. Publishers have to apply to join the program and, once accepted, can customize the appearance and behavior of their Instant Articles.

If your organization is active on Facebook and derives a significant amount of traffic from content shared on the social network, configuring your site to generate a properly formatted RSS feed is now possible. However, joining Facebook’s Instant Articles program isn’t as simple as you might hope.

What do Content Publishers Gain by Joining the Program?

Content publishers who participate in the program gain a greater degree of control over the way their content appears when viewed within the Facebook app. Publishers can also sell ad space within Instant Articles and keep either 100% or 70% of ad revenue depending on whether the publisher or Facebook sells the space.

Greater control over UX and increased revenue are both powerful motivators, but the biggest reason to consider joining the program is that Facebook users’ experience is better with Instant Articles. Facebook claims that Instant Articles load ten times faster than standard mobile web content, a claim that has been independently confirmed. Instant articles also render using all of the available device viewport real estate, making Instant Articles a much more immersive, app-like experience than content viewed in a browser.

Over time, it’s likely that Facebook users will grow to prefer Instant Articles and interact with and share them more frequently as a result. While Facebook’s algorithm don’t explicitly favor Instant Articles, it does favor content that gets more user attention. Instant Articles will get an organic boost in performance as users prefer them over external links. For this reason, just about everyone, from blogs and news websites to lifestyle brands and real estate agents, are expected to start joining the program en masse once it is open to all publishers.

Who Should Participate in Facebook’s Instant Articles Program?

The program is intended for news publishers and other organizations who publish content regularly. As a matter of fact, publishers can’t apply to join the program unless that have at least fifty feed items ready for evaluation. As long as your organization can populate an RSS feed with at least 50 posts you should think about signing up.

Getting Ready for Instant Articles

Pushing posts to Facebook in proper Instant Articles format is as simple as installing a plugin, right?

Yeah, no.

Joining the program is an eleven-step process.

Facebook has tried to make it as easy as possible and has created a guide to walk you through the process, but before you can get started your organization has to be approved by Facebook. While you can’t request to be added to the program until it opens up in April, you can go ahead and let Facebook know that you’re interested in the program, which presumably means they’ll let you know the minute you can formally apply.

In the meantime, here are three things you can do to be ready to move the minute Facebook opens the program up to all publishers.

Step 1: Get Your Facebook Presence is in Order

Your organization’s Facebook presence and your familiarity with the platform needs to be in order.

First, make sure your organization has a Facebook page and that you are a page admin or editor. You’ll also want to go ahead and set up a Business Manager account if your organization doesn’t already have one, add your Facebook Page to the account, and add other members of your organization to your Page using the Business Manager.

Instant Articles are managed directly from a Business Manager account, so go ahead and get this set up now so that you don’t have to figure it out later.

If you don’t already use it, download the Facebook Pages app. You can find it in Apple’s App Store on your iPhone or iPad, or in the Google Play store. You’ll need the app to preview and test Instant Articles. Go ahead and get it and learn your way around it.

Step 2: Build an RSS Feed for Instant Articles

Instant Articles are assembled by Facebook using HTML content imported from an RSS feed formatted in a specific way. In order to integrate your WordPress website with Instant Articles, you’ll need to generate this specially-formatted RSS feed. Thankfully, there’s a plugin for that.

The plugin, created in partnership between Automattic and Dekode, will eventually be added to the official WordPress.org Plugin Directory. In the meantime, you can go ahead and get started by downloading it from GitHub.

click "Download ZIP" to download the plugin file

The plugin will be downloaded in ZIP format, and you have two options for installation. You can either:

  1. Use the Plugin installation tool in the WordPress admin area to upload and install the ZIP format plugin file,
  2. Extract the ZIP file on your computer and use an FTP client to copy the extracted plugin folder to the /wp-content/plugins/ directory within your WordPress installation.

Once the plugin is installed, head to the Plugins page within the WordPress Admin area and activate it.

Activating the plugin will create an RSS feed which can be found by visiting the URL http://yourdomain.com/feed/instant-articles.

Instant articles feed has been created

If you run a WordPress Multisite network, the plugin creates Instant Article RSS feeds for every site in the network automagically. To test this out, we created a test site in a multisite network and visited the feed URL to confirm that the new feed was generated.

Feeds are automatically created at all sites within a multisite network

Right now, installing the plugin will not create a settings panel in the Admin area. While the readme.txt at GitHub indicates that filters can be used to manipulate the items that appear in the feed, no instructions are provided, and implementing the filters requires manually editing plugin files. In addition, the notes at GitHub suggest that these filters may change over time. Our recommendation is to stick with the default feed for now and to edit it once an updated version of the plugin adds a settings page to the Admin area from which filters can be configured.

One change you can go ahead and make is to change the URL where the Instant Articles feed is generated. To do this, open the file titled facebook-instant-articles.php and find the constant INSTANT_ARTICLES_SLUG. In version 0.1 of the plugin, it can be found at line 18. Then go ahead and delete instant-articles and insert the URL slug you want to use.

change the definition of constant INSTANT_ARTICLES_SLUG to change the feed URL

Note: Before making any changes, download a copy of the facebook-instant-articles.php to your computer so you can use it to replace or repair the file on the server in the event that you accidentally break something.

Once you’ve made the changes and uploaded the modified file to the server, go to Settings > Permalinks. This will flush the rewrite rules causing the new slug to take effect. You should now be able to locate your Facebook Instant Articles feed at the new URL.

The feed can now be accessed at the new URL

Step 3: Apply to Join the Program and Follow the Steps

The next step is to wait until Facebook opens the Instant Articles program to all publishers in April. Assuming your organization has a Facebook page set up, go ahead and let Facebook know that you’re interested in the program.

Take the time to review the Quickstart guide Facebook has put together so that you’re ready to hit the ground running as soon as you get the green light to join the Instant Articles program.

Step 4: Limit the Feed to Items Updated in the Last 24 Hours

Note: Don’t do this until Facebook has formally added your organization to the Instant Articles program and imported your feed items.

When you apply to join the Instant Articles program, Facebook will want to see at least 50 posts in your RSS feed. However, once your feed is imported for the first time, Facebook will ignore posts that haven’t been updated in the past 24 hours. For this reason, once your organization has been added to the program and your feed has been imported, you can edit your feed to only include items modified within the past 24 hours.

To make this change, first download and set aside a copy of facebook-instant-articles.php which you can use in the event that anything gets broken. Then, using a different copy of the file, define the constant INSTANT_ARTICLES_LIMIT_POSTS as true. It probably makes the most sense to add this definition just above the if statement that determines whether or not to limit the feed. In version 0.1 of the plugin this happens around line 150.

define INSTANT_ARTICLES_LIMIT_POSTS as true to limit the feed to items updated in the last 24 hours

Add the line, save the changes, upload the changed file to the server, and then head back to your Instant Articles RSS feed. You should now see the feed limited to just those posts that have been updated in the past 24 hours. If you don’t see the changes, you may need to perform a hard refresh of the page.

Reminder: Since Facebook won’t add your organization to the program unless your feed contains at least 50 items, don’t limit the feed until your organization has been added to the program and your feed items have been imported by Facebook.

As you can see, joining the Instant Articles program isn’t for everybody and will require some effort on your part. But as I mentioned above, there are benefits to joining the program and if the excitement around it are anything to go by, it’s well-worth letting Facebook know you’re interested in signing up.

What do you think? Is it worth making the effort to participate in the program? Or, to use the words of Gawker founder Nick Denton, is this just one more step in the process of assuming a “position of abject surrender” when it comes to publishing content on Facebook? Let us know what you think in the comments below.