Facebook's new News Feed wish list includes mobile and highlighted friends

Analysts weigh in on what Facebook should unveil in Thursday's big event

Facebook is set to unveil an updated News Feed on Thursday and analysts have a wish list of changes that users might welcome.

Facebook on Friday sent out press invitations for a March 7 event at the company's offices in Menlo Park, Calif. "Come see a new look for News Feed," the invite reads.

The company didn't give any details about how the new page might look.

Industry analysts, though, have their own ideas, which include adapting the News Feed to work better on a mobile platform and allowing users to highlight the friends and information they're most interested in.

"I want to be able to tag certain users, like my wife, as important so her news is at the top of my feed," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "All news in my feed is not of equal value. So let me determine what is important to me and how much I want to see."

Kerravala said it would be smart for Facebook to tweak the News Feed for mobile so it works more smoothly on smartphones and tablets.

"Searching and sorting would make news much easier to digest when you're mobile," he said. "With mobile, you're really looking only at two news events per page. Here's where something like, say, "express news" would be better where I just get one line of what the news is... You'd get more headlines and then you could choose to see more detail."

Mobile has been a major challenge for Facebook and every other Internet company.

Users are quickly moving from desktops and laptops to accessing Facebook on their smartphones and tablets. That has forced Facebook to streamline their mobile interfaces and functionality, while also rethinking how they can generate revenue off the mobile platform.

The company has made big gains in that area.

About eight months ago, Facebook noted in a pre-IPO amended filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that mobile computing was one of the biggest risks to its potential success.

However, during the company's fourth-quarter and year-end earnings call in January, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "Today, there is no argument. Facebook is a mobile company."

Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc., said whatever changes Facebook makes are bound to affect the social network's mobile platform, since the News Feed is the prominent feature on the Facebook app.

"They are always looking to improve, and given the drive for innovation at Facebook, it's not surprising they want to revamp a core aspect of their service," Blau said. "The Facebook timeline user interface hasn't undergone an overhaul in about three years, but social networking and user interaction paradigms across the market haven't stopped advancing."

He added that Facebook could do a better job with user engagement and monetization if they restructured the News Feed to give users more meaningful content and changed the interface so it's better suited for users' individual social needs, while also giving businesses more options for reaching their intended audiences.

That, according to Blau, could mean adjusting the News Feed so users see more posts from their closest friends, a revamp of how advertising is displayed, and even a layout of the interface and color scheme.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said Facebook should focus on enabling users to see more news that is important to them, but what they shouldn't do is clutter up the News Feed with more ads.

"My sense is they are likely going to include more revenue-generating aspects, which could make the feed even more annoying," Enderle said. "I don't thing they should make the feed less useful by filling it with more ads."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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