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Facebook may start using hashtags as next advertising ploy

The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is working on incorporating hashtags into its social network. Introducing hashtags may be an advertising ploy, but what does it say about the future of Facebook's user experience and brand?

By Steph Solis / March 15, 2013

In this 2011 file photo, a Facebook User Operations Safety Team worker looks at reviews at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is planning to incorporate hashtags.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook plans to start using hashtags. The symbol, popular on Twitter and other online services, helps users categorize their ideas and spread inside jokes. Facebook may adopt the hashtags to improve search rankings and, above all, appeal to advertisers. 

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The hashtag emerged on Twitter shortly after it launched in 2006. A hashtag is a word or phrase beginning with the pound symbol. Users take a word or phrase (with no spaces) that could refer to anything from a meme or phenomenon to a famous person. Thus, hashtags like #PopeFrancis, #BeyonceBowl, and #firstworldproblems are born.

On Facebook, hashtags have received mixed reviews. Over the years, some users have ridiculed those who add hashtags to posts.

Dave Charest of Constant Contact included hashtags on a list of “25 Things That Make You Look Dumb on Facebook.” It ranked fourth.

“Umm, hashtags are for Twitter,” Charest wrote. “If you’re just cross-posting from Twitter, that also signals that you don’t care enough about your Facebook fans to create updates just for them.”

The appeal to advertisers, however, seems to have compelled Facebook to embrace hashtags. WSJ says enabling users to search trending topics and similar topics based on hashtags would give users more reason to stay on the social networking site.

WSJ also notes that incorporating hashtags is Facebook’s next step toward advertising dollars. Zuckerberg’s social network has already adopted other aspects of Twitter, such as sharing, searching, disseminating news, and tagging.

A Facebook spokesperson neither confirms nor denies the reports, stating that “we do not comment on rumor or speculation.”

But just today Sriram Sankar, an engineering manager on Facebook’s search quality and ranking team, wrote in a post that Facebook is focusing on providing better search for mobile and new content (hat tip to CNET).

Now that Graph Search has launched, he writes, Facebook is including text processing and ranking in search capabilities, but also “building a completely new vertical to handle searching posts and comments.” Mr. Sankar predicts Graph Search is just on the verge of expanding into a comprehensive search engine.

Digital marketing strategist Ernest Barbaric, says hashtags hint at Facebook’s move toward subject-based networking as opposed to friend-based networking in efforts to satisfy advertisers and shareholders.

While hashtags could be well-received and profitable, the social media site might sacrifice its user experience and brand appeal, Mr. Barbaric says. 

“They [Facebook] almost seem to be going the way of AOL to be everything for everybody, to have a dominant website presence,” he says. “Where the value comes in? It’s going to come in for advertisers who can make sense of this complex world Facebook has.”

It’s what Barbaric describes as a brand-identity crisis. While Facebook has retained its leverage as the dominant social network, it has shifted toward incorporating other elements in an attempt to become the hub of the Internet. 

CEO Mark Zuckerberg perhaps said it best at the Facebook News Feed announcement on March 7, where he describes Facebook as “a personalized newspaper" that can have a broad quality of content and customization.

The risk is that Facebook could lose its appeal as the dominant social network in its efforts to become master of all, Barbaric says. Many people like separating online resources from social networks to some degree, so the larger implications of Facebook’s reported changes could overwhelm those who prefer to keep Facebook friend-based and other networks subject-based. 

Despite any repercussions, however, Facebook could still come out on top in its move toward subject-based networking, Barbaric says. It’s a gamble for the social network.

For more tech news, follow Steph on Twitter: @stephmsolis

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