Measuring the impact of Facebook’s new initiatives

Facebook’s f8 developer event dominated the news this week, but most coverage focused on individual announcements and missed the big picture. Facebook revamped its platform for developers but also wove that in with earlier user interface initiatives to make a far-reaching social infrastructure that extends outside Facebook’s “walled garden.” This architecture could have a big impact on content and media usage, and just might launch a lifestyle apps market on the same scale as social gaming.

Individually, the new initiatives are interesting, but how they interact reveals Facebook’s innovation and huge ambition. Note how the platform is constructed to broadcast activities that appear in users’ feeds, sorted by a new algorithm aimed at encouraging discovery and more activity, a true virtuous circle.

  • Activity feeds. Immediately prior to f8, Facebook overhauled the way users see friends’ activities and updates on the main news feed, adding a real-time “ticker” and auto-populating Smart Lists. At f8, it introduced Timeline, which adds to user profiles time-based context, application activities and a “whole new aesthetic,” according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Social apps platform. Facebook extended its Open Graph protocol and plug-ins so that developers can create apps that run within Facebook, on mobile devices or on their sites that send user activity updates back to those feeds without requiring a user to use a Like or share button.
  • Ranking algorithm. To keep those feeds relevant, Facebook introduced Graph Rank, a personalized sorting algorithm for app activities tuned for each feed.

Prospects for adoption

The multiheaded feed management that’s the heart of Facebook’s UI is probably still too complex, and users are predictably complaining. Will users choose to auto-share, on and off Facebook? Many won’t, but based on how effective the Like button is and the simplicity of the new sharing opt-in, I’m guessing a lot will. Facebook will likely generate more entertainment activity tracking than check-in apps like GetGlue and Miso do on their own. If they haven’t already, those companies should jump to support the new Facebook features.

Facebook invited Spotify and Netflix onstage, but it’s also making a big pitch for startups to develop new apps, the aim being to jump-start a whole new class of lifestyle apps like recipes and Nike’s running monitor. Its not-so-subtle pitch: Look what we did for Zynga. Facebook thinks these new apps — especially when running on mobile devices — can take great advantage of auto-sharing for discovery. And it’s hinting that startups won’t need to buy as much paid search from Google (or even Facebook ads) or invest in SEO to game Google’s secret PageRank algorithm to build their audience. Facebook claims its analytics will let developers optimize the functions on their apps that increase activities and thus make them show up more often in Facebook feeds.

But even without auto-sharing, Facebook is becoming a big traffic driver for news sites. Most media companies want to maximize usage of their own sites, where they have better control over advertising than they would with a Facebook native app. Mathew Ingram points out that they don’t have to live within the Facebook walled garden to take advantage of the new features. Yahoo News shows how. Media and entertainment sites — and startups that can afford it — should experiment with both options and build hooks into native apps that drive users to the main site for a richer experience or more content.

Facebook’s ambition and hubris are massive. But its potential role as kingmaker for startup apps is real, and its ability to drive traffic proven. Players in entertainment and lifestyle can’t afford to ignore its platform and audience.

Question of the week

How widely will Facebook’s new platform features be adopted?