Facebook Testing In-House Questions App

Facebook is testing out a new “Questions” app, and not while not many details are available about it now, the concept is intriguing – and it’s perhaps a foreshadowing example of how developers should expect to see Facebook testing out more of its own apps this year.

The Questions feature appears above advertising on the right-hand column, and includes links to provide an answer, or ask your question. It also shows you the name of the person who asked a question — presumably a current Facebook friend, or someone in your geographic area, perhaps — with a link to their profile. While Facebook has run various interactive elements in this space before, like “become a fan,” this is the first time it has put direct user-to-user interactions in it. In terms of how the app will function, we’re guessing it will access user profile data about friends to decide which users will see which questions, like what Aardvark does.

The bigger picture, on that point, is that “Questions” appears to be a new communication channel, distinct from the news feed, messages, invites and notifications. It’s not clear what else Facebook might want to do with it. Perhaps we’ll start seeing questions and answers appear as news feed stories, for example, or somehow give third party applications, Pages and Facebook Connect sites access to it for their own questions, asked from their own destinations?

The right-hand column placement also suggests Facebook may want to provide companies and other organizations with access to the service for a fee of some sort. Like Facebook sells “Sponsored Events” as an ad unit, one can easily imagine “Sponsored Questions” going in here. Or, Facebook perhaps thinks Questions is a feature that will get users paying more attention to the right-hand column than they have been, thereby driving up clicks on ads?

All these questions imply that the company will need to carefully control privacy around the feature, as the new channel is an obvious place for inappropriate or sensitive questions and answers, that users probably don’t want to have made widely available.

Facebook’s Blake Ross gave a little more background yesterday on Quora:

Facebook’s experimentation in this “space” is actually a direct result of internal circumstances at the company rather than all this recent outside activity. For the last few years, we didn’t have enough engineers to make significant, sustained investments in our applications (e.g. photos and events). Earlier this year, we finally got comfortable enough with our recruiting numbers to reorganize the product engineering group into dedicated application teams of 4-5 people each. That’s why you’re suddenly seeing improvements to applications that haven’t evolved in years, such as our recent launch of higher res photos. One of our app teams is charged with experimentation and we decided to pursue this vision of real-time Q&A now that the resources were finally in place.

User-generated question and answer services have been around for years. But a couple very interesting ones have launched recently that try to take advantage of social connections to provide better answers. One is Aardvark, real time-driven service that was recently bought by Google. It lets you type simple questions into a variety of interfaces — instant message was the main one — then it sends your question to your friends who had the most relevant interests and expertise. Facebook profile data was a key way that it figured out which person to send which questions to.

A group of former Facebook employees have also recently started a site called Quora, that provides an easy-to-use interface for asking and answering questions. It relies entirely on Facebook for social features; it automatically has you “follow” all of your friends on the service without saying so, for example. By using Facebook, it retains the real-world connections that most people have on the service.

We still don’t have many details on Questions. But we do know one thing: Facebook is investing more in its in-house apps, something we predicted we’d see more of this year just last week.

[Image via All Facebook.]