If you check Facebook today for real-time updates in its Ticker feed, you may find yourself staring at ads instead. Some Facebook users are now seeing a redesigned version of the home page that places ad units at the top of the right sidebar. Ticker, Events, and birthdays have been moved down beneath these ads. Similarly, some now see ads relocated above the Timeline profile’s navigation column in the right sidebar. Those in the test with windows wide enough for Ticker to be snapped to the far right see ads above everything else in the sidebar.
By making ads more prominent on some of the most frequently browsed parts of the sites, users may be more likely to click through or at least see them. If Facebook rolls out this redesign to the entire user base it could significantly increase the value of the site’s premium home page and profile ad inventory. Alternatively, by dynamically rearranging the home page and profile sidebar, Facebook could consistently trick users into looking at ads where they were expecting to see the Ticker or navigation column. Either way, the changes could allow it to charge advertisers more and increase revenues.
Facebook rarely places its bottom line above the interest of the user experience but here it has done so quite literally. The whole point of the Ticker was to allow users to consume real-time updates without having to switch to a separate “Most Recent” tab of the news feed. By burying Ticker below ads, users are less likely to notice a friend asking for someone to go to dinner with or a conversation developing around a posted link. They’re also less likely to notice they have Events or friends with birthdays that day.
On Timeline, the redesign makes more sense. By lowering the Timeline navigation column, it sits closer to the feed of updates that actually moves when users click to view content from last month or last year. Cleverly, if users do scroll down the Timeline such that the ads would be obscured, the ads suddenly reappear beneath the navigator and begin to float so they stay visible.
Only a limited set of users are currently seeing these redesigns, so they could disappear as quickly as they showed up. However, the fact that Facebook is even testing them indicates it may be loosening up in terms of the real estate it’s willing to give advertisers. Classically, Facebook has taken a long term approach to monetization, making ads as unobtrusive as possible to keep users addicted to the site. With the company expecting to IPO in 2012 though, it might be interested in juicing its ad revenues to court investors even if it slightly degrades usability.