Facebook News Feed tweak: UI enhancement or ad platform?

If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about Facebook, it’s their penchant for making drastic changes without notice, or giving user the opportunity to opt out, or ease into said revisions. Their latest revamp of the Chat tool comes to mind; constantly logging me into Facebook Chat whenever I log into Facebook is not only intrusive, but seems like a privacy issue as well.

With that said, Facebook has recently made some other tweaks that are less intrusive, and actually seem to serve some utility. By nature, Facebook has a pretty low signal-to-noise ratio. If you’re being updated about the happenings of 400 “friends”, not to mention a handful of brands, you’re bound to be inundated with notifications in which you’re not particularly interested.

Facebook - Related Instagram posts

Facebook has started to consolidate your news feed items by type, grouping multiple posts from third-party services like Instagram together to cut down on noise.

In the last few weeks, Facebook’s begun grouping news feed updates by type, i.e. all Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter updates are appearing together. They may be from different people or different “circles” of friends, but if six of your friends post Instagram photos to Facebook within a few hours, Facebook is grouping them together and hides all but one (presumably, the most relevant) update. I’ve been unable to find any confirmation behind the methodology used to pick which photo Facebook shows you, but we can safely presume that EdgeRank has something (or everything) to do with it.

While it doesn’t appear there’s a preference for unfolding these types of updates by default, and this behavior may annoy some users who will have to click to expand all of their Instagram-related updates, this would seem to be useful functionality.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is a new type of grouping I discovered Friday night as the Red Sox and Yankees were battling at Fenway Park. Facebook grouped three posts containing the words “Red Sox” from two of my friends and one brand that I follow. They were collected under the heading, “Billy and 2 other friends posted about Boston Red Sox“.

Facebook - Related Instagram posts

By grouping posts from your friends together by topic, Facebook is creating a new opportunity for brands like the Red Sox to get in front of new audiences who may not have been exposed to their Facebook presence. If your friends are talking about the Red Sox, there’s a strong chance you’re also a fan.

This was interesting for a number of reasons, the least of which being that my friend Billy is a loud-mouthed Yankees fan who mentioned that life was good because it was the beginning of August and the “Yankees and Red Sox are playing each other for first place.” More relevant was that Facebook grouped these status updates and included a link to the Boston Red Sox fan page.

Presumably, the next time the Kings of Leon play the TD Garden here in Boston, Facebook will group posts from my friends who are bragging about going to the concert and couple those status updates with a link to the Kings of Leon fan page. That activity could lead to additional ticket sales or incremental growth for the KOL fan page.

It’s a clever way to consolidate noise while helping brands grow their fan pages when they’re highly relevant in a specific community at a specific time. What’s not clear is whether this new feature is part of the “Sponsored Stories” ad product that Facebook introduced earlier this year. If you’re unfamiliar, Sponsored Stories creates ads in the sidebar that include your friends’ updates saying they went to Starbucks, with a link to the Starbucks fan page. Starbucks has paid for this ad to appear, and it’s one of many ways they continue to grow their Facebook fan base by targeting the friends of fans of their Facebook page.

So is this new News Feed functionality a new advertising platform (or an expansion of Sponsored Stories), or simply a consolidation mechanism?

My guess? It’s probably both.

Think of it like Twitter’s trending topics functionality, but with a much more viral impact. After all, if my friends are fans of the Red Sox or Kings of Leon, there’s a good chance I have interest in them as well. And while the traditional Sponsored Stories layout in the right hand side featuring a logo is an obvious ad, this new consolidation of related topics is a much more subtle approach that could prove more effective at generating click-throughs and “likes”, simply because it doesn’t look like an ad.

Either way, it’s an interesting development for the News Feed that’s got monetization potential for Facebook — if they haven’t sold it already, that is.

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