One minute after the stroke of midnight on Saturday could usher in a virtual land grab for vanity URLs on Facebook, with the social networking site poised to enable members to create usernames for personalized online addresses.
Currently, the URL for a Facebook profile ends with a string of digits. But beginning on Saturday morning, members can substitute the numbers with a name of their choice to make it easier for friends to navigate to their site.
Names will be available on a first-come-first-served basis to anyone with a Facebook profile, or a fan page with more than 1,000 fans, must be a minimum of five characters long and is permanent — no changing it later. Participating in the free personalization service is optional.
Facebook designer Blaise DiPersia made the announcement in a blog post.
“Your new Facebook URL is like your personal destination, or home, on the Web. People can enter a Facebook username as a search term on Facebook or a popular search engine like Google, for example, which will make it much easier for people to find friends with common names,” DiPersia wrote. “Your username will have the same privacy setting as your profile name in Search, and you can always edit your search privacy settings.”
To prevent cybersquatting, anyone who signed up for Facebook after 3 p.m. Eastern time today will not be able to secure a username until after 12:01am on June 28. Facebook also said it reserves the right to revoke a username, and will allow trademark owners to contest names they believe infringe on their trademarks.
The news comes at time when social media marketing is gaining traction as a way for brands to build awareness and offer interactive promotions, potentially at a lower cost and higher effectiveness than traditional media. Now that personalized URLs have been added to the mix, it could be a boost to those marketers using Facebook for online marketing by ensuring that brand’s fan page is easier to find.
It remains to be seen how Facebook itself will benefit from offering personalization for free — aside from pleasing its user community, which had been requesting such a feature for some time, according to the company.
“I think certain people would be willing to pay, but that’s not the best solution because people have different resources and means, so we wanted a solution in the best interest of all our users, as opposed to serving a subset. The fairest thing is to offer it for free,” a Facebook spokesperson told InternetNews.com.
The spokesperson declined to comment on what future ways usernames could be employed but agreed that easier search functionality will benefit online marketers in addition to the general community.
The monetizing question
But offering personalized URLs for free could also spell a lost opportunity for making money. Given that people often pay for domain URLs and Facebook members are already spending money at the site to play social networking games — for instance, buying virtual poker chips for card games — the move may be a missed chance at generating revenue, something with which the site has been grappling for some time.
Most recently, however, Facebook introduced a unified payment system for virtual goods used in games at the site, therefore putting the company in a position to get a slice of the revenue from such transactions.
The way transactions work now on Facebook leaves the site out of the payment loop, as third-party developers create their own payment systems and take all the revenue.
Facebook is hoping that a unified payment system for items such as virtual poker chips would make it easier for the site’s members to play more games. This, in turn, would benefit everyone involved, but especially Facebook, which would be getting a cut of the transaction, and therefore presumably making money off the revenue stream for games.
For now, it seems Facebook is using the payment system with just three applications, but plans to introduce it to more applications in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s efforts to unveil new features and ramp up its revenue stream comes as social networking continues to grow at a rapid clip. The amount of time people in the U.S. spend on social networking sites jumped 83 percent over the past year, according to a study by market researcher Nielsen Online.
And Facebook is leading the way — the site’s U.S. users collectively spent 13.9 billion minutes on Facebook in April 2009, up 700 percent from the 1.7 billion minutes they were spending in April 2008, according to the study.
Minutes spent on Twitter soared a whopping 3,712 percent to almost 300 million, versus around 7.8 million from the same month a year ago.
“We have seen some major growth in Facebook during the past year, and a subsequent decline in MySpace,” Jon Gibs, Nielsen’s vice president for online media and agency insights, said in a statement. “