Thursday, March 07, 2013 6:47 pm
Facebook brings a more personal touch to News Feed
By MICHAEL LIEDTKEAP Technology Writer
In an attempt to breathe new life into Facebook's News Feed, the company will introduce new controls that allow people to sort streams of photos and other material into organized sections.
With the makeover unveiled Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hopes to turn the News Feed into something more like a newspaper tailored to the particular interests of each of the social network's more than 1 billion worldwide users.
Although Zuckerberg didn't say it, the overhaul also appears to be aimed at carving out more space to show larger and more dynamic ads within the News Feed as Facebook seeks to boost its revenue and stock price.
Previous tweaks to the News Feed have triggered howls of protest among Facebook's users. Hoping to minimize the grousing this time around, Facebook intends to roll out the changes in phases. It will probably be six months to a year before everyone who accesses Facebook on a personal computer sees the revamped News Feed, the company said. The facelift is likely to be more jarring for those who only visit Facebook on a PC because it incorporates some features already deployed in the social network's mobile applications for smartphones and tablet computers.
"They needed to freshen things up," said Brian Blau, research director of consumer technologies for Gartner Inc. "This should bring a lot of cooler things" into the News Feed.
The new features will enable users to choose to see streams of content that may feature nothing but photos or posts from their closest friends, family members or favorite businesses. Or they can just peruse content about music, or sports, as if they were grabbing a section of a newspaper. Other newspaper-like changes will include lists of events that users' social circles have flagged for the upcoming weekend and other summaries meant to resemble a table of contents.
By adding more personal touches, Facebook is acknowledging that the computer-generated formulas that it has been using to determine the content shown to each user have become less effective as the social circles within its network have widened to include a more diverse array of information.
"This gives people more power to dig deeper into the topics they care about," Zuckerberg said while discussing the makeover at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters.
Facebook still intends to rely on algorithms to select some material to feature on the main part of the News Feed, much like newspaper editors determine what goes on the front page.
More space on the News Feed's front page and other sections space will be devoted to pictures and video in recognition of how dominant those visual elements have become on Facebook as smartphones and tablet computers equipped with high-quality cameras have made it easier to share snapshots and clips.
About 50 percent of the posts on News Feed include a photo or video now, up from 25 percent in late 2011, Zuckerberg said.
Bigger pictures also will give advertisers a larger canvass to make their marketing pitches. Facebook is hoping marketers will seize the opportunity to develop more creative ways to entice and intrigue customers so advertising can become a more acceptable fixture on the social network.
More than anything else, the changes are meant to make Facebook a more fun place to hang out. If it doesn't keep evolving, the site risks becoming an Internet has-been like other once trendy social networks such as Friendster and MySpace.
"This is all about keeping people engaged," Blau said.
Although Facebook's website remains one of the Internet's top destinations, there have been early signs that the social network is losing some of its pizazz, particularly among younger Web surfers who are starting to spend more time on other fraternizing hubs such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram, a photo-sharing site that Facebook bought for $521 million last summer.
A phenomenon, known as "Facebook Fatigue," was recently documented in a report from Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The study found that about 61 percent of Facebook users had taken a hiatus for reasons that range from boredom to too much irrelevant information to Lent.
That's a worrisome trend for Facebook because the company needs to ensure that its audience keeps coming back so it can learn more about their interests and, ultimately, sell more of the advertising that brings in most of the company's revenue.
"I don't think it had turned into a crisis, but Facebook was probably seeing some internal data that was telling them they needed to do something," said Greg Sterling, a senior analyst for Opus Research.
Facebook has been struggling to find the right balance between keeping its fun-loving audience happy and selling enough ads to please investors who want the company to accelerate its revenue growth.
Wall Street seems to think the redesigned News Feed might be a step in the right direction. Facebook's stock gained $1.13, or 4.1 percent, to close Thursday at $28.58. The shares remain 25 percent below the $38 that they fetched in Facebook's initial public offering last May.
The mobile-friendly redesign of News Feed underscores the company's intensifying focus on smartphones and tablet computers as more of its users rely on those devices to interact on the social network.
About 23 percent, or $306 million, of Facebook's advertising revenue came from the mobile market during the final three months of last year.