Facebook announced a major redesign of its News Feed Thursday, which should come as welcome news to users who've complained about being bored with the site, as well as to brands and advertisers who have been pushing the social network to deliver more bang for their bucks.
At a news conference at its Menlo Park, California, headquarters, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of his employees unveiled the new look, which Zuckerberg said will be "the best personalized newspaper in the world."
A More Visual and Customizable News Feed
The redesigned newsfeed is much more visual--the size of photos in the feed are significantly larger, for one thing. The image-centric design stems from the fact that by the end of 2011 more than half of the content shared on the social network were things like photos and videos, Zuckerberg said.
Another big change is the news feed will be customizable. If you're a big music fan, you can drill down into a music feed which, based on the kinds of music you like and the things your friends are listening to, will present content relevant to new albums coming out or information about concerts on the horizon, as well as content from artists you follow.
If you only want to see photos, you can click on the photo feed. Only want to see what close friends are posting? There's a feed for that, too. Or maybe you want to see what all your friends are posting in chronological order, Facebook says now you won't miss anything.
Speaking of not missing anything, there's also a following feed, which lets you see all the posts of the people and brands you're following in chronological order "to make sure that content publishers know that their fans can see every single post that they make," Chris Struhar, technical lead of news feed, was quick to point out.
For brands, that last part is a big deal.
Brands Need People to See Their Posts
That's because some big names, including billionaire Mark Cuban, The Wall Street Journal, Walmart, Star Trek star George Takei, and New York Times tech columnist Nick Bilton, all have complained that people aren't seeing posts from their Facebook pages as often as they should. In fact, last weekend Bilton penned an exposé of sorts in which he wrote that while Facebook's subscribe feature has allowed him to garner 400,000 followers, over time the number of people liking or resharing his posts has dropped significantly--from hundreds of likes to mere double-digit figures.
"From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100," Bilton wrote.
What changed, he wrote, was that he paid Facebook $7 to promote his column with his friends. After doing so, he noticed "a 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on a link I posted, which had 130 likes and 30 reshares in just a few hours. It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for."
Whether brands will find that the new News Feed, with its various sub-feeds, does a better job of putting their content in front of users, remains to be seen. However, Facebook did make a point of saying the new News Feed would include more outside content from public pages as well as pull in content from third-party apps, such as Pinterest and Instagram, indicating the social network might actually do a better job of getting itself out of the way--another goal I heard in today's news conference.
A Shot at Better User Engagement
As for the timing of the announcement, there's no doubting that Facebook had to do something to up its game.
While Facebook might be the original social network, it's now surrounded by scads of competitors--Pinterest, Tumblr, and Twitter among them--making the nine-year-old company seem somewhat old hat, at least according to some users. So the fact that it's going to allow content from some of these third-party apps might just work to keep more people on its site.
It's an important goal, considering a Pew Research Center study earlier this year found that the majority of users admit to taking breaks--sometimes for several weeks or more--from the social network, many of whom said their reason for a sabbatical was "lack of interest in the site itself" or "an absence of compelling content."
At the same time, Instagram appears to be hot, particularly with teenagers. And according to The New York Times, although Facebook actually owns Instagram, Facebook CFO David Ebersman recently said Facebook considers its photo-sharing site a competitor, an admission that makes sense considering Instagram isn't yet monetized with ads.
As for advertisers, they just want their ads shown to the people most likely to click on them, but this hasn't always been a given, in spite of the enormous amount of data Facebook is able to mine from its users' likes, connections, whereabouts, history and anything else they put up on the site.
Last year, for example, Facebook's "Sponsored Stories" came under fire when users didn't like the fact that if they "liked" a company's page, checked in at a store or restaurant, mentioned a product or service, or somehow interacted with an advertiser, such actions could be repurposed in ads, thereby making them unwitting spokespeople.
Since then, Facebook was hit with a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company unlawfully utilized its users' content. To make up for the faux pas, the social network later offered to put $20 million into a fund to be paid out to people whose posts and what not were used in sponsored stories.
Will Facebook's big facelift somehow manage to do what the social network hasn't been able to before--better engage users while providing brands and advertisers with improved access to the consumers most likely to buy their products and services? Stay tuned.
The redesigned News Feed is rolling out Thursday to a small group of users who will help Facebook know what to tweak before rolling it out more broadly.