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Facebook may charge users to remove ads, patent application reveals

By Janko Roettgers | GigaOM.com,

Don’t like those contextual ads displayed next to your Facebook profile? Would you pay Facebook a monthly fee to get rid of them?

A patent application that Facebook filed in mid-2011 and that finally got published at the end of January suggests that the company may be willing to give up on ad space and offer users more flexibility with regards to the look of their profiles in exchange for cash.

Patent application 20130030987 is tellingly titled “Paid Profile Personalization,” and its description doesn’t exactly beat around the bush either:

“The user may select one or more social networking objects to replace advertisements or other elements that are normally displayed to visitors of the user’s profile page that are otherwise controlled by the social networking system. In particular embodiments, the user may edit elements on their profile page that are otherwise automatically generated and controlled in design and content by the social networking system. In particular embodiments, the user is billed on a recurring basis for profile personalization.”

The patent application lists CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself as well as Facebook Ads Product Director Gokul Rajaram and former Facebook Product Management Director Prashant Fuloria as inventors.

It doesn’t actually mention Facebook by name, and instead just refers to general social networking functionality — but both the language of the application and the accompanying drawings make it clear that this could one day very much become a Facebook monetization strategy.

Facebook, one has to remember, was seen as the anti-Myspace when it launched in 2004. Myspace gave users so many options to customize almost everything on their profiles to the point where many profiles made your eyes hurt. Facebook, on the other hand, tightly controlled the look of its profile pages with a unified layout across the entire site.

Now it may be willing to give up some of that control. One example specifically mentioned in the patent application is about those contextual ads on the right side of your timeline. Users could replace them with pictures of their car or other “favorite memories.”

Another example would allow users to get rid of the small about section that Facebook currently places under a user’s profile picture. Users would be offered the option to replace information like their hometown, gender and relationship status with a personalized status message.

From the patent application:

“For example, after receiving a large number of comments or “likes” on a particular status message, the user may receive a dialog box prompting the user with the text: “Would you like to personalize your profile with this status message for 10 credits a month?””

Even the list of people displayed as your friends may be up for grabs:

“For example, the user may select his closest friends for display, or his most attractive female friends as a method of self-promotion.”

To be fair, the existence of a patent application alone doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook will actually follow through on these plans. However, Facebook has been under significant pressure by Wall Street to increase monetization – and efforts to do this through ads and sponsored messages have led to some backlash.

Earlier this week, New York Times blogger Nick Bilton suggested that the social network was displaying fewer of his posts to his followers in an effort to make paid posts more appealing. Facebook strongly rejected this suggestion – but it still goes to show how suspicious many Facebook users are of ads and promoted posts on the site. Giving these users a way to opt out of some of the advertising could be a smart move – and at the same time open up new revenue streams to Facebook.

The patent application for paid profile personalization suggests as much, stating:

“Permitting such functionality improves the overall user experience while maximizing revenue to the social networking system.”

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this post.

(c) 2013, GigaOM.com.

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