Facebook takes after Twitter with new 'trending' feature

Topics cannot be sponsored or promoted 'at this time,' the company said
Facebook's new trending section is meant to surface popular topics on the site.

Facebook's new trending section is meant to surface popular topics on the site.

Facebook has launched "trending," a new feature designed to surface popular topics being talked about on the site, in a move that increases its rivalry with Twitter, and, eventually, could also increase its advertising revenue.

The feature will appear as a new section to the right side Facebook users' main "news feed" page, Facebook said Thursday. The word "trending" will appear at the top, and underneath it any number of topics might appear, based the level of activity posts about those topics have received.

Trending emphasizes posts from people's friends and public pages such as news organizations, celebrities and public figures, the company said. The feature is designed to be personalized, so topics you've told Facebook you're interested in, and your existing connections, will be factored into what's trending.

The trending algorithm will also weigh sharp increases in popularity for posts, rather than overall volume. In other words, just because "lunch" is talked about during lunchtime every day around the world, it will not be displayed in the trending section, Facebook said.

As of Thursday the feature appeared to be working as advertised. For instance, in one user's feed, the Academy Awards ranked high, though it was below "Bruce Springsteen," presumably because that musician was included in the user's "likes." Clicking on either of those headlines takes the user to a landing page where posts about that topic appear in a feed. Posts from people's connections rank higher in the feed.

With the feature, Facebook gains a tool that could help to keep people coming back to and engaged with its site. And if the digital real estate gathers enough attention from users, Facebook could use it to grow its advertising sales dramatically.

Trending topics cannot be sponsored or promoted at this time, a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement.

Twitter's trending bar offers a function similar to Facebook's, although the more public nature of Twitter means that that company's tool could catch more topics. Twitter already charges marketers to have topics from them appear in its trending bar, with the posts being marked as "promoted."

But whether Facebook can make serious money from its trending feature is hard to predict -- it depends on whether users actually pay attention to the topics it shows. Facebook, like Twitter, also has incorporated hashtags into its service. The tool is meant to let users more easily find posts around certain topics, but a recent study showed that hashtags had little or no viral impact.

Facebook's trending feature started rolling out Thursday on the desktop to users in the U.S., U.K., Canada, India and Australia. Facebook said it would continue to test the feature on mobile devices.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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