What Facebook Should Be Building

Facebook has a big launch event on Tuesday. Here are nine things I think it may be working on, or at least should be. We’ve heard tips that some of these are already in development and may be released soon, while the rest could fill big holes in Facebook. Even if none of them hit the stage on Tuesday, they probably will eventually, and the list offers a deep look at what Facebook could improve right now.

What this list doesn’t include is wildly forward-thinking products. Facebook should definitely still be trying to blow people away with revolutionary innovation. But right now there are cracks in the infrastructure, business deficiencies, and huge opportunities to apply its data set that need to be taken care of.

Facebook Search — For Businesses, Posts, And People

Mark Zuckerberg explained at TechCrunch Disrupt that Facebook already had a team working on search, and that it’s uniquely suited to answer questions like “What’s a good sushi restaurant in San Francisco?” by using data about your friends. Search could help Facebook apply the information to help users. It’s also critical to the future of Facebook’s bottom line because when you search for something, you’re showing purchase intent. Facebook could make big bucks selling sponsored placement to advertisers who want to reach you right before you decide what to buy.

Facebook took a big step in this direction by launching Nearby within its mobile apps. The local business search helps you find places your friends recommend. But the feature is buried as a tab on mobile and doesn’t exist on the web. A web interface for Nearby or a standalone mobile app could bring it a lot more usage.

Searching updates from friends or public posts by the rest of the world is also very clumsy now. Facebook could add a new channel for content discovery by improving this and adding Twitter-style trending topics.

Facebook People Search

Then there’s people search. Despite Facebook knowing all the intimate details of your friends or people you’d want to connect with, its people search feature is pretty terrible. The Find Friends browser is buried several tiny links deep within the Friend Requests interface and doesn’t exist in its mobile app. That makes it very tough to track down real-life contacts you want to friend unless you know their full names. Helping people forge these connections locks users into Facebook and delivers them more content so they visit more frequently.

It’s also tough to sort your existing friends. You’d think it’d be easy to search for all your friends who currently live in a certain city so you could contact them while you’re in town. It’s not. Facebook gives you a mix of strangers and friends. You can also only sort existing friends by location, education, and work place. That means there’s no way to search for friends in New York who Like Mumford & Sons so you could find people to go to their concert with. You also can’t just look up all your single friends in your city when you’re feeling lonely. A major revamp of Facebook’s internal people search might not bring tons of new monetization opportunities, but it would sure make the service better.

An Easier Way To Find Things On Timeline

Timeline Navigation YearsTimeline is pretty, but it’s inadequate from a usability standpoint despite being one of Facebook’s core products.

While we’re on the subject, Facebook definitely needs a search engine for Timeline. It should be simple as pie to pull up your old posts by keyword, location, or which friend you tagged. Right now you have to comb through your whole Timeline month by month. That’s kind of ridiculous. If it’s worried about making it too easy for employers or other sensitive people to dredge up your embarrassing moments, make it so we can only search our own Timelines. This would help us with privacy so we could keep things visible to the right people, as well.

Beyond search, a big gripe I hear from developers is that people don’t know where their non-Facebook app activity ends up on their Timeline. A more predictable layout of what you’ve done across the web and your mobile apps on your Timeline could make Facebook feel even more like the center of your digital life.

Finally, I still feel like my Timeline is too rooted in reverse chronological order. I wish I could pin my favorite links, photos, and status update to the top. The Timeline Cover could host a collage of these things, or it could just sit above my recent posts. Facebook could surface my posts that got the most Likes and comments to make it easy for me to grab my best content. Flexibility in what I show on my Timeline would let me give a more accurate representation of my identity to those who come to my profile.

Friend Management So I Can Hide People I Don’t Care About

Over the years, most people have added friends they aren’t really friends with — at least not anymore. This clogs up your news feeds with irrelevant stories and makes Facebook feel impersonal. It’s also opening Facebook up to disruption by more intimate social networks and communication apps like Path and Snapchat.

Facebook’s attempts at a solution include Groups, Friend Lists, and micro-sharing privacy controls. Groups work for specific topics or established sets of people, but aren’t flexible enough and notify the members of their inclusion. Friend lists are tough to manage over time and are too buried. Micro-sharing through privacy controls is unintuitive, easy to screw up, and easier to forget about entirely.

Suggestions of who you probably don’t care about and an option to mass-hide them from your news feed (but not defriend them) would be great. The current option to hide people one at a time is a chore and requires too much thinking. Facebook should just tell you who you don’t Like posts from, chat with, get tagged with, or live nearby and let you banish them from the feed.

Sharing to different sub-sets of friends is a tough design problem, but there’s got to be a way to remind you that you can do this so you share more intimate or interest-related things more frequently but to fewer people.

Hide Friend From News Feed

Facebook For Cars

Cars are getting connected, at least according to the slew of major automobile makers who at CES announced developer platforms and other technology in their new models. Getting embedded in vehicles ahead of other social networks could create a moat for Facebook. If it really succeeds on the road, it could look to own the way drivers communicate. Yet Facebook’s presence in vehicles has mostly been handled externally, with Ford and GM reportedly experimenting with integrations over the years.

That could change soon. Last week Facebook added voice messaging to its standalone Messenger app. When I asked what it could be useful for, the two examples Facebook gave me would assist drivers.

Facebook Driving Voice messages

One was recording a voice message and sending it to a friend nearly hands-free instead of typing a message or SMS to them, which would certainly be helpful while driving. The other was the ability to send long, complicated messages such as driving directions via voice instead of text, which drivers could listen to rather than having to take their eyes off the road to read. Facebook also began testing VoIP in Canada, which could let people have full, two-way conversations via Messenger with friends they might not have the phone number of instead of making a standard voice call. Drivers could use this to chat while on the road.

Facebook could release either a version of Facebook Messenger for cars, such as through the Ford developer program. Alternatively it could use some Bluetooth system to tap Messenger into your car’s technology and speaker system. We received an anonymous, unverified tip that Facebook was working on this, possibly for an upcoming launch.

Standalone Feeds For Different Content Types

The news feed mashes up content of all types, from friends’ status updates and photos to music, news articles, videos, e-commerce, and more. But the cognitive switching required to digest them all in a mix can be exhausting. Making sure there’s always something new to discover on Facebook is important to its ability to maintain a high time-on-site/app that gives it chances to show ads.

Standalone feeds for different content verticals could aid discovery for whatever you’re in the mood for and open up vertical-related advertising opportunities.

Facebook launched an underdeveloped Music feed in late 2011 that shows listening activity by friends and top songs in your network, and it now displays “Recently Released Albums” and “New Music From Artists You Might Like,” thanks to an update a few weeks ago. It also recently launched a dedicated Pages feed that only shows updates from Pages you Like.

Facebook Music Feed

Facebook could revamp and extend these standalone feeds for desktop and mobile. Industry sources confirm that Facebook has hired contractors who are working on a version of the Music feed for mobile. A better version for both the web and mobile feeds could create big advertising opportunities for the music industry, which might pay to feature new albums or hawk concert tickets.

More ambitious would be a slew of new standalone feeds for news articles, videos, and e-commerce. Now that a prohibitive old privacy law has been swept away, Facebook could create a feed of what friends are watching on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and other sites. A “news” feed could compete with services like Circa and Prismatic, and an e-commerce feed could challenge Pinterest for product discovery. For mobile, these could come as tabs in the navigation of the already bloated Facebook for iOS and Android apps, or they could be bundled into a standalone “Feeds” app. Either way, they’d attract advertisers from these verticals looking to reach a hardcore audience.

[Update: I’ve since gotten a look at radical visual redesign of the mobile news feed that Facebook has built for iOS. It’s ditches the gray and white empty chrome for full-width images and overlaid text, and offers different feeds for “news” and “photos” — and possibly more content types. Read more.]

A Revamp Of Notes To Take On Tumblr

Facebook has basically abandoned its blogging feature Notes since it launched Timeline. Notes lets you write long-form posts that include links and photos, and innovatively uses friend tags to let you notify people who you want to read your little masterpieces. In the old profile they were much more visible thanks to a tab or pinned box. Now if you don’t select to show Notes as one of your four Timeline Views tiles, friends might never see them after they’re published.

This is a big problem, as Tumblr has grown wildly successful over the past few years, especially with teens. Some have suggested Facebook should buy the blogging platform. But if Facebook provided a better home for Notes on the Timeline, made publishing them more lightweight, and allowed easy reblogging of others’ Notes, it would have less of a need to make the costly acquisition.

The social network’s goal is to host all the ways you share, and more and more people are getting into blogging. Facebook needs to convince them they shouldn’t set up a separate website where they start with zero audience. They already have a graph of friends to share with.

Facebook Notes

A Real Video Chat Competitor To Google Hangouts

When two people aren’t together, the most vivid form of communication is video chat. Facebook needs to control these intimate interactions. It has a video chat feature it built through a partnership with Skype, but it hasn’t been updated in 17 months and is pretty bare-bones. That’s absurd considering how fast Facebook typically moves. Despite promises made at launch, there are still no options for group video chat or audio-only chat, and it doesn’t support mobile.

In the time since, Google Hangouts has constantly iterated, and now is leagues ahead of what Facebook offers. Direct streaming to YouTube might not be possible, but Facebook could certainly work out how to let people screenshare, simultaneously consume content online like videos, or overlay cutesy stickers like pirate hats. If it added video chat to Messenger or its primary smartphone apps, its ability to access your real social graph, not just your Google+ contacts, could let Facebook give Hangouts a run for its money.

Facebook Video Chat Skype

New Advertising Channels To Show It’s All Grown Up

When Facebook makes changes to its ads platform, they’re typically very quiet. It held the big Facebook Marketing Conference last February where it announced the launch of mobile ads, real-time marketing insights, and Timeline for brand Pages. But otherwise, it just makes the changes silently, or briefs a few members of the press. Now that it’s a public company, showing Wall Street it thinks better advertising deserves a launch event could help get the $FB share price up above the $38 IPO price.

One thing sources say Facebook is working on is a better automated ad rotation algorithm. This would ensure people see fresh and different ads from a company rather than Facebook showing the same ad over and over, which makes it easy to ignore.

Facebook’s hottest ad product right now is FBX, its cookie-based retargeted ads system that shows you ads for products on websites you recently browsed. They’re highly relevant, so in some ways FBX ads are less intrusive and better for the user experience (though some find them creepy). Retargeted FBX ads are only shown in the desktop sidebar right now — Facebook’s worst-performing ad unit.

How FBX Works Mid near Done

The extension of retargeted ads to the desktop news feed or even the mobile news feed could lure in lots of ad dollars. Since Facebook maintains a unified view of your identity across the web and mobile, it could use your web browsing habits to target you with mobile ads in ways other sites can’t. This could make the shift to mobile easy for Facebook to weather than its competitors in advertising.

A Facebook Phone (Or Maybe It Shouldn’t)

For the last few years, Facebook has desperately tried to purport itself as a social layer for mobile, not a competitor to iOS, iPhones, Android, or smartphone OEMs. But multiple sources say Facebook may in fact be launching a phone on Tuesday. If it tried to build its own premium smartphone hardware by itself, it could be a ruinously expensive boondoggle. It’s too small of a company to be taking such a big swing in a business it knows little about.

Let me be clear: Facebook should not try to build an entirely new operating system or its own high-end phones. If it does, Wall Street should be weary. And for what it’s worth, my inside sources haven’t heard anything about Facebook launching a phone this week, and some industry sources outside, though close to Facebook, deny it. Facebook didn’t hold an f8 conference this year, so it may have built up a stockpile of smaller announcements for this week rather than one giant one.

There is one big opportunity for Facebook mobile hardware, though — the emerging markets. That’s where its next billion users are going to come from, but first Facebook has to get them online. This demographic can’t afford premium smartphones. They might not even have the cash to pay for data plans for cheap phones. What they want is voice, text, and Facebook.

Facebook PhoneThe social network could strike deals with international carriers similar to its Facebook Zero program. Facebook would be able to offer Facebook Phone users free or extremely cheap limited data connectivity to power basic Facebook features such as the news feed, friending, messages, status updates, or maybe even low-res photo sharing. The carriers would get an advertising revenue share, or display of promotions encouraging people to upgrade to a real data plan.

The strategy could bring hundreds of millions of people into the mobile world and onto Facebook simultaneously, and help it achieve its goal of connecting the world. There have been plenty of Facebook Phone rumors before.

But as MG Siegler detailed for TechCrunch yesterday, all those people “crying wolf” about a Facebook Phone may be proven right Tuesday, or eventually.