Facebook Is Quietly Testing First Major Redesign in Over a Year

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Ever since it debuted as TheFacebook in early 2004, the world's largest social network has undergone design changes both big and small. Just one year after Mark Zuckerberg launched the site from his Harvard dorm room, he dropped the The from its name and purchased facebook.com for a reported $200,000. That same year, the trademark blue color shifted slightly and the site's banner disappeared. I can't find any public response to the change (remember, Facebook was only open to select college students back then), but if the feedback from future design tweaks is representative of the reaction to the first, nobody was pleased.

Over the past seven years, Facebook's designers and developers have made a number of changes to the site. With each one, a vocal minority rises up and expresses -- loudly -- its opposition. But they eventually settle down or move on and we quickly acclimate to a new look and feel. It's like every two years when you upgrade your smartphone and have to get used to a new keyboard, a new interface, a new operating system. You hate it at first, but you grow used to it in time.

Well, it's time to get ready for the next wave of noise. It's been over a year since any major changes were made to Facebook's homepage, according to VentureBeat, and the site's developers are currently in the process of testing a new change that is sure to get users as heated as they've ever been -- perhaps more so. And that's because the new site design prominently features advertisements. Nobody likes advertisements, even if they keep Facebook free for its 750 million users.

Story continues after the gallery, which highlights some of Facebook's many iterations.

The new homepage tweak, if made public (and it probably will be), would keep the placement of advertisements and the menu navigation window static. As the user scrolls down the page, scanning their News Feed and checking in on friends, these elements would follow them. The navigation bar at the top of the screen and even the site's footer would also remain static.

The only elements that scroll in the new design are the News Feed in the middle of the window and the Happening Now feed, which is a real-time feature that Facebook just started testing two weeks ago. The Happening Now feed, which has, in tests, appeared at the top of the right-hand sidebar where Upcoming Events are usually listed, shows users what their friends are sharing and commenting on and liking as it happens. Clicking on any of the feed's entries activates a pop-up window with more details.

What's interesting about this change is that it will only allow Facebook to display a certain number of advertisements on each page. Presumably they'll be able to charge more for this digital real estate given that all of the available ad spots will have a longer impression time on viewers -- and should, as a result, enjoy a higher click-through rate. But in the current layout, Facebook can stack as many advertisements in the right-hand section of the website as it's team can sell; the space is virtually limitless.

The new design would not just be welcomed by advertisers, but also Page managers. "By piling more stories into the same space rather than hiding them behind the Most Recent tab, Happening Now could boost impressions for Page update stories," according to Inside Facebook, a blog that tracks the social network closely. Current statistics show that even the most popular Pages, those with over one million fans, receive less than three unique impressions per day per 100 fans. This change should also improve user retention for apps, which will be prominently featured in the left-hand sidebar wherever any user is on the site.

But what are the benefits for users? Facebook could argue that it's easier to navigate to your messages and photos or to access your admin options since the navigation bar is static. But that's probably not going to be enough to make people happy when this starts getting rolled out across the network. In fact, it looks and functions a lot like Gawker's redesign, which relies heavily on a scrollable main content window with static elements. And the reaction there wasn't something to try and replicate.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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