Facebook Testing “Happening Now” Column That Could Reduce Home Page Bounces

Facebook is testing a new version of the home page that displays a column titled “Happening Now”  listing recent actions of friends in the right sidebar where the “Upcoming Events” section usually is. The short Happening Now entries such as status updates, Likes, new friendships, posted links, and comments can be clicked to pop up a window in-line that shows the original wall story and all its associated Likes and comments.

Happening Now could give users a snapshot of more than 10 stories about friends before they even scroll beneath the fold of the news feed, decreasing the bounce rate. For now, though, Facebook says the “test includes a small percentage of Facebook users,  just a fraction of a percent”.

An Abbreviated Feed Provides a Wider Breadth of Content

The Facebook news feed only has room to show a maximum of roughly five stories above the fold before users have to scroll to see more, and this number can dwindle as low as one or two in the case of posted links with lots of comments. Happening Now allows Facebook to display a much wider breadth of stories above the fold through an independently scrollable frame, increasing the likelihood users will see something that catches their eye, and decreasing the immediate bounce rate of the home page. It does this by abbreviating some stories such as posts of links by omitting feedback and the author’s description, so the stories bear resemblance to notifications.

Unlike Twitter’s stream, which this test looks similar to, Facebook doesn’t always show a new update at the top of the news feed, and the rich content can make it difficult to rapidly consume. In 2009, Facebook at one point altered the news feed to be purely real-time updates similar to Twitter, but moved back to its original algorithmic design after seeing a prolonged negative response from users.

As Facebook becomes a hub for so much of people’s social activity, many have probably gotten into the habit of quickly opening a Facebook tab in their browser, scanning for new notifications and interesting stories at the top of the news feed, and closing the tab if nothing hooks them.

Happening Now could ensnare these impulsive visitors by giving them instant access to relevant content, and encourage them to leave Likes and comments that trigger notifications for friends. These actions, as well as more complicated ones such as watching posted videos, can all be done from the in-line pop up. Facebook Ads that are traditionally shown in the right sidebar appear to be pushed above or below the new column. If the feature was rolled out, Upcoming Events would have to be moved somewhere, and Facebook would need to prevent redundant content from appearing side by side.

Facebook briefly tried out a different “Happening Now” on the Events home page in August, which showed people currently active Places checkins as well as events going on that day. The web version of Facebook doesn’t have a way to see an aggregated list of checkins by friends, so users must either sift through their news feed or access Facebook via a mobile site or app. If checkins can appear in the new Happening Now, the column could inform users that their friends are at a nearby cafe and they should considering meeting them before they get engrossed in the site.

The Twitter-esque Happening Now has the potential to offer a more concise stream of content than the news feed without requiring significant redesign that might shock users. It augments the news feed’s algorithmically sorted Top News and real-time Most Recent feeds with an abbreviated, scannable feed. Happening Now could help users stay closer connected to more friends without having to browse or scroll.

Update 6/16/2011 2:15pm PST: Some users have commented that they don’t enjoy the Happening Now module and wish to remove it. Facebook does not provide a way to remove Happening Now, and rarely allows users to opt out of the small percentage of the user base who experiences design tests like this. However, Facebook will likely remove Happening Now from the home page of the test group once the test has concluded if it chooses not to roll the feature out wider.

Update 8/5/2011: Facebook has confirmed the existence of the Happening Now, telling CNET “We are currently testing a feature within News Feed that gives people the ability to see what their friends are commenting on and ‘liking,’ as these actions are being taken on Facebook. This test includes a small percentage of Facebook users, just a fraction of a percent. In the coming weeks, as we learn more from this test, we’ll keep making improvements and may expand it to more people.”