As first reported by TechCrunch's Billy Gallagher, Facebook launched a new Recommendations Bar this morning, following up on the initial announcement at last year's f8 conference. It's fairly simple: When you're reading a post, the bar's popup box recommends various posts and articles that your social graph has liked.
In addition, a "Like" button shows up next to the box button, allowing you to easily like the post being read. The like functionality remains the same — a liked post will show up on your timeline and in your friends' news feeds.
A few sites are already using the Recommendations Bar, including Mashable, WetPaint and yes, even Facebook's own Developers Blog. Here's a screencap of it in action:
Two interesting comparisons of this new functionality have arisen: the comparison to a traditional "recommended" tab and the Digg comparison. The New York Times is one of the first that comes to mind. Upon completing a story, the tab pops up from the side of the page, recommending another article to read based on the topic of the previous post (example). The Facebook Recommendations Bar acts similarly, but pops up from the bottom right-hand side of the page.
Of course, the recommended content cannot be ignored. The content in the Recommendations Bar is crowdsourced off of the Facebook social graph. Like Digg, the bar identifies content that may be of personal interest to the user based off of previous likes from friends.
We were able to give the Facebook Recommendations Bar a shot on Mashable's homepage and ran into two early issues.
First, while we could click on the box to expand the recommended posts, it expanded randomly on page scroll. For instance, on one post, it expanded as soon as we scrolled to the Comments section, and on another, it expanded when we got to the absolute bottom of the page (and who really scrolls that far?). In addition, the content in both of the boxes was simply not relevant to us — it didn't seem to include any keywords found in the various posts, nor were most of the posts even in the same category as the ones we read, despite friends' likes.
Sure, it's a good initial release, and Facebook has plenty of time to iterate on the recommendation algorithm as more companies integrate it. But the biggest challenge here is getting users to actually "like" articles they like. The recommendations will not get any better until people are actively liking a significant amount of content — it gets better as Facebook gathers more information. Ultimately, does a user feel inclined to "Like" a story after reading it, or do they click on to the next one?
The Recommendations Bar will be a good step in making this as natural of an action as it could be, but what about sites that opt not to use it? Will the likes on their content suffer? It certainly seems like something that could snowball on itself. Sites that use the Recommendations Bar could significantly surpass those website that don't, at least with regard to the aggregate number of likes on content, which will set back those who choose not to implement the Bar. Early signs point to the bar being very effective for clickthrough rates: TechCrunch reported 3x the number of clickthroughs for the bar in relation to the Recommendations Box.
Facebook believes that their Recommendations Bar will have a profound impact on how we consume online content. From a design strategy perspective, this is an excellent move — it makes it easier on the user to like and share a page, cutting out unnecessary time and headache looking for a like button, while increasing the likelihood of a social share. It provides a nice springboard for the social network to get into serious social content aggregation — just from a slightly different angle than how Digg or similar aggregators selected relevant stories.
If you're a Facebook user, do you think the Recommendations Bar will change the way you read, share and discover content? Let us know in the comments.