Facebook to Improve How Members Discover Applications

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Less than two years after Facebook opened its Web site to external developers, more than 52,000 applications have been created, a volume that is prompting the company to simplify how its members find these programs, according to a company official.

"We're focusing a lot on discoverability of applications. Our 'Feed' [feature] is a great way of discovering what actions your friends are taking, but we also are very keenly focused on improving the experience around discovering apps," Dave Morin, Facebook's senior platform manager, said in an interview Tuesday.

Currently, Facebook members can look for applications by browsing a directory or by entering a query on the site's search engine, and developers in turn can hawk their applications by purchasing advertising space on the site.

However, Facebook wants to improve on these methods of finding and promoting applications. "We're doing lots of testing around giving users more ways to discover applications that their friends are interacting with, so you'll see some of that work come out this year," Morin said during the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami.

This should be good news both for members interested in finding applications that are relevant and useful to them, as well as for developers, some of whom have complained that the latest Facebook redesign reduced the visibility of applications in member profiles.

Facebook takes issue with the grievance from developers who say the redesign has been bad for their applications. The company maintains the opposite is true, saying that developers who understand the new opportunities the redesign provides them have increased the user engagement for their applications.

Be that as it may, the truth is that developers create about 140 new Facebook applications every day, so any help sorting through and finding applications will surely be welcome, considering the staggering number of options available to the site's 175 million members.

"We're looking at that experience, trying to improve the discoverability of applications. You'll see a bunch of improvements there this year," Morin reiterated.

One way in which developers will be able to differentiate their applications from the rest is by having them verified by Facebook, via a verification program announced in November. However, Facebook hasn't yet started granting the verification seals to applications.

"That program is chugging along. We're working with several developers and getting it queued up. It's a big thing to operate, so we've been scaling it up, getting it ready to go," Morin said.

Some developers have criticized the application verification program as being too expensive for small developers, potentially creating an unfair two-tier system that will benefit developers with bigger pockets. In November, Facebook said it will charge a US$375 fee per application and that, if obtained, the certification will last 12 months, after which the application will have to be resubmitted for review and revalidation.

Although there are tens of thousands of Facebook applications, plenty of opportunities remain for developers with good ideas and the ability to create engaging and useful applications, he said.

"We're always interested in the future, always interested in higher quality apps and in more developers doing interesting things," Morin said. "We're always looking to new categories and interesting places where we think there should be innovation."

The Facebook catalogue of applications has been criticized for being too heavy on silly entertainment programs that allow members to, say, throw virtual sheep at one another.

Morin said that there are categories of applications that haven't been explored very much, in areas like education, religion, health and productivity. The latter category is one Facebook is very interested in, and led the company to strike a partnership with hosted CRM (customer relationship management) software vendor Salesforce.com, he said.

One thing that isn't an urgent priority at Facebook is improving the functionality of its own core applications for the site, like Photos, Video, Mail, Instant Message, Groups and Wall, although some feel that many of these tools have much room for improvement.

Right now, the focus is on the Facebook application platform and on the data portability system Facebook Connect, which lets members take elements of their Facebook profile to participating external Web sites. For example, Facebook Connect lets members log into other Web sites using their Facebook ID information and carry with them their list of contacts.

"We've always been proud that our apps are incredibly simple and that they achieve the goal of giving people the power to share certain types of content and connect around it in simple but powerful ways," Morin said. "We've seen massive growth with the feature set we have today."

"That doesn't mean we're not interested in improving them in the future, but for right now we're definitely focused on the platform and our core product experience: identity, connecting and giving people the power to share. But that doesn't preclude us from innovating and doing interesting stuff with our applications in the future," he added.

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