Facebook Hashtags: a Play for Real-Time Ad Dollars

If Adopted by Users, Hashtags Could Provide a Valuable Signal for Graph Search

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Facebook is reportedly planning to adopt one of Twitter's seminal features, the hashtag, a move that could put the two companies more directly in competition for ad dollars.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is testing out an integration that would enable users to click on a hashtag and be sent to a page where conversations around that topic would be grouped, akin to how Twitter search functions.

There are obvious implications for ad targeting, since Facebook will theoretically now have a much better signal to identify highly engaged TV viewers watching a real-time event like the Oscars or the NBA Finals if hashtags are widely adopted.

However, it's also possible that Facebook's foray into hashtags has much more to do with data and building out its graph search product than with ads (for now). Graph search is reliant on the "like" as an expression of interest, but likes are flawed signals, since users sometimes click on them arbitrarily or to satisfy a social obligation. But posting with a hashtag could be seen as a more tangible expression of affinity and could thus help to make graph search into a useful product.

For example, if you wanted to search for "shows that my friends like," graph search in its current incarnation would pull up specific programs your Facebook friends have "liked." But these likes may not reflect particular enthusiasm, since someone could have "liked" the show, stopped engaging with its content, and then mostly stopped seeing anything about it in their news feed altogether. But a person who posts with the hashtag #revenge or #downtonabbey is likely to be fan of the show -- or at least someone who's paying attention to it. Which means hashtags -- if adopted by users -- could make graph search much more effective.

While not specifically mentioning graph search, Facebook's head of media partnerships, Dan Rose, recently said that Facebook could fill a void in the TV ecosystem around discovery.

"The reality is most of us choose to watch [TV] based on shows friends told us about," he said at the All Things D media conference.

Hashtags also seem like a fit with CEO Mark Zuckerberg's vision of Facebook as a "personalized newspaper," as he referred to it last week when rolling out a new version of news feed where users can see streams comprised solely of photos, events or music-related content.

However, Facebook has a much steeper privacy bar to clear than Twitter does in terms of publishing user content. The vast majority of Facebook posts are private, meaning that the public ones eligible to be shown on hypothetical hashtag pages would be the tip of the iceberg of conversation happening on the platform.

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