The Speed Of Share

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Screen shot 2009-10-04 at 11.39.37 PMFacebook has a problem. One of its main goals now is to be the center for sharing everything on the web, but the key to that is to make the process as quick and easy as possible. And in that regard, its rival Twitter destroys it. That’s a problem.

Now, Facebook isn’t in any immediate danger because of this, it can coast on its sheer size (300 million users). But eventually, if those users find their way to Twitter, I would bet that they’ll start sharing more there, because it’s just so much easier. And while ease and speed may be what the user cares about, traffic is what publishers care about. And despite being much larger, Facebook also loses that battle to Twitter.

A Tale Of Two Buttons

The reason I bring this up is because this weekend, TechCrunch installed a new Facebook Share button on every article, next to the Tweetmeme Retweet button. When we first installed it, we set the Facebook button up with the default settings that included a share count, and the ability to pop open a new window to complete the share. These default settings are awful.

The first time I clicked on the Facebook button to test it out, I could not believe how long it took to populate the information to share. I did some tests, comparing it to the retweet button. Assuming you’re logged in to both Facebook and Twitter already, the Tweetmeme retweet button takes about 2 seconds to send your shared message over to Twitter.com, which you then send by hitting “Update.” So let’s say the total time is about 3 seconds to share.

With the Facebook button, it took quite a few seconds to load this new small window. And then it took another few to post the shared information to my wall. Also, the Facebook functionality attempts to pre-populate a picture from the post you are sharing. That’s a good idea in theory, but it’s almost always the wrong picture, so that’s another few seconds to cycle through those to find one (or get rid of it). So we’re looking at a total share time of 10 to 15 seconds.

While 10 to 15 seconds may not seem like a lot of time, compared to Twitter’s 2 to 3 seconds, it’s an eternity. And people who use both services will realize this (whether it is consciously or not), and I believe it will push them towards using Twitter more as their main sharing outlet.

And the gap is actually much larger if you’re logged out of both services to start. With Twitter, it takes a couple seconds max to sign in. With Facebook, it can take anywhere from several seconds, up to 30 seconds in my experience. All of this wasted time adds up, and it really disuades me from using Facebook to share things.

Another inexcusable time suck on Facebook’s end is caused by the pulling of the share count. Tweetmeme seems to do this on its button without much problem (though their count is sometimes off). With Facebook, it is another barrier to sharing because it slows the whole process down. Seeing this, our dev team made some changes to the button almost immediately. They removed the count number to reduce load time, and also got rid of the pop up window functionality. Instead, now when you hit the button, it will populate the information in a regular new browser window or tab. The result, is much, much faster (though still not Twitter fast).

A Need To Connect

17095584_99ed2e6537Facebook does have a weapon that Twitter does not right now: Connect. A core idea behind Facebook Connect is that you can share things to Facebook (and back) without having to manually share them. That’s interesting, and eventually will be very powerful, but it’s still is nowhere near its potential. And the truth is that I’m not even sure Twitter needs a Connect of its own because third-party development community that keep pumping out sites and services that continue to feed the Twitter sharing machine.

Those same developers have not been doing that for Facebook because Facebook until very recently would not supply them with the type of developer support they needed for these third-party sites outside of Facebook proper. And now even with some (but not full) support, developers are not creating the same type of app ecosystem around (again, not inside) Facebook, that they have for Twitter. This limits the sharing pipeline for Facebook.

Facebook also has its Import functionality that users can use to auto post things like stories from Digg, Flickr photos they post, YouTube videos they favorite, and even blog posts they write. But this feature is horribly slow, and laughably unreliable. It was basically trying to offer much of what FriendFeed does, but it is worse in every way possible. Hopefully now that Facebook has bought FriendFeed, that will change.

Sharing Is Caring

Facebook recently added the “Everyone” button functionality and revamped its bookmarklet. To me, both of those signal Facebook’s desire to be the central place for sharing content on the web. Unfortunately, neither of these did anything to improve the speed of sharing.

There’s something else that is often overlooked, but very key to this sharing of information: Facebook has no simple way to reshare items. To be fair, Twitter doesn’t really either, but its users dreamed up the retweet idea, and soon it will be fully baked into the product, with the launch of the Retweet API.

Users have chosen not to use Facebook status messages in the same way, and there is no method to reshare News Feed items. FriendFeed has a very obvious “Share” button on each item which allows you to repost an item, or share it elsewhere. But maybe even worse, Facebook also has no method like FriendFeed of having interesting items that users “like” bubble back up to the top of the stream. Sure, they have a “Highlights” area, but that’s really pretty weak. It’s all about the stream, and currently, once an items falls off of the first page of the News Feed, the likelihood that you will ever see it again, is slim.

Again, maybe the FriendFeed acquisition will help remedy these things. Or maybe Facebook will once again take a play from Twitter’s playbook (as it did with the @ syntax) and create some sort of reshare functionality.

Traffic Doesn’t Lie

Obviously, users are going to want a sharing process to be as quick as possible, but while publishers care about that too, their bottom line is different: Traffic. You might think that Facebook would have the obvious advantage here since it’s much larger than Twitter, but you’d be wrong.

As we shared back in June, Twitter is in our top five referrers. Facebook? Not even on the list.

Actually, they are on the list, but farther down it. While Twitter is #3 or #4 (depending on the month), Facebook is more like #6, #7, or even as low as #10. And the gap between the two is pretty wide. That’s fairly remarkable for a site that is much, much smaller (Twitter) to be already easily beating its bigger rival (Facebook).

Maybe the new Facebook button will change that, but if I had to bet on it, I would say that it won’t. And I believe that speaks to the fact that it’s much easier to share on Twitter than it is on Facebook. And while it may not be a huge problem right now for them, it’s something I’d be taking very seriously. Speed and ease in sharing are only going to become more important in an increasingly social web.

[photo: flickr/mikewoods, flickr/jurvetson]

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