Editor's Note: Facebook recently announced significant changes to its platform that impacts small-business marketing efforts. In response, Practical eCommerce will publish "How Facebook Changes Impact Ecommerce Merchants," a three-part series aimed at addressing each of these changes. The series will run in the following order:
- Part 1: Pages Redesign
- Part 2: From FBML to iFrames
- Part 3: Sponsored Stories Ad Units
In this "Part 2" installment, our own social media guru, Paul Chaney, addresses the switch to iframe technology for custom Facebook pages. He described the overall redesign changes last week, in "How Facebook Changes Impact Ecommerce Merchants, Part 1: Page Redesign."
Facebook recently announced that it is moving from its proprietary Facebook Markup Language (FBML, a version of HTML) to iframes for custom page creation. Facebook has set March 11 as the deadline, after which no new tabs can be created using FBML.
Many users depend on a Facebook app called staticFBML to create custom tabs, such as "Welcome" or "Products" that you see on many Fan pages. staticFBML enabled those with less technical proficiency in HMTL and CSS to build such tabs. The change from FBML to iframes means Fan page owners must learn how to develop tabs using iframes, or rely on third-party tab-creation service providers.
Use of iFrames
It is not the purpose of this article to explain iframe technology. However, here are some of the main points.
"iFrame" stands for "Inline Frame." It allows a web page hosted on one server to be embedded (or "framed") into a web page of another. For Facebook purposes, this means a custom tab will not reside on Facebook's servers. It will be hosted elsewhere, then embedded into a tab using iframes. This will presumably result in a major reduction of the load placed on Facebook's servers and, likely, was one of the reasons for the decision.
The use of iframes is not a new technology. It was introduced by Microsoft Internet Explorer as early as 1997, according to the iframes entry in Wikipedia.
iFrame technology offers a number of advantages over FBML. Because pages will no longer be served from the network's own servers, the constraints imposed by Facebook's platform will go away. This means greater flexibility in terms of the types of scripting languages that can be used and deeper integration between the merchant's website and Facebook page.
iFrame technology also presents challenges. Some custom-tab functions that relied on FBML will be more difficult to implement. For example, the ability for a page owner to require a visitor to Like the page to enjoy its full benefits — a technique called "fangating" — will now be more difficult to create, and, for some users, will require a developer's assistance. In addition, the page owner will have to provide space on his or her own server for custom tabbed pages.
This change, along with the recent redesign of Facebook pages, may mean a change in the terminology used to refer to tabs. Formerly, navigation was done with a row of tabs across the top of the page. Now, navigation is located on the left of the page, under the profile banner. Since customization will now be done using Facebook's developer app technology, the term "tabs" seems less appropriate.
The Future of FBML
Facebook says that existing tabs built using FBML will continue to function and administrators can continue to edit them. However, in "Introducing iframe Tabs for Pages," a post on Facebook's Developer Blog, program manager Cat Lee stated that Facebook will be deprecating FBML altogether at some point, though no definite date has been determined, apparently. There are "no plans to fully deprecate/stop support before the end of year," says Lee. Nevertheless, Facebook is encouraging the use of iframe technology sooner rather than later.
What does this mean for the use of FBML? First all, there is no need to panic. If what Lee says holds true, FBML on existing pages is safe for the moment. Here are some recommendations:
Stock up on some extra installations of staticFBML for your existing pages prior the March 11 deadline, as doing so will enable you to create new tabs afterwards.
Learn how to develop custom tabs using iframes. The use of iframe technology is not beyond the reach of the layperson. One web development company, HyperArts, is creating a series of tutorials on the use of iframes.
If you don't want learn iframes, there are many third-party Facebook page creation and management tools available. Here are five of the most popular:
Tabsite. We use Tabsite to manage the Welcome tab on the Practical Ecommerce Facebook Page. The cost runs between $5 and $15 per month, depending on the feature set chosen. It is a basic WYSIWYG editor, but makes the job of tab page management much easier.
ShortStack. ShortStack offers several widgets, including video embed, polls, gifting, contact forms and email newsletter functionality. The cost starts at $5 per month and rises based on the number of Fans. The company indicates they have already made the necessary preparations for the switch to iFrames.
SplashTab. This app relies heavily on the use of templates for page creation. Prices start at about $7 per month. One drawback is that users have to pay additional subscription fees for each tab they create, so it can get expensive. According to Tyler Carneal, SplashTab's owner, the company is considering a revision of the pricing model in order to be more affordable for small business.
Pagemodo. Pagemodo calls itself as a free app. However, it charges users if more than the basic features are required. Prices range from $9 to $59 per month.
Fan Page Engine. Fan Page Engine offers templates for a one-time price of either $37 or $67, depending on the number of templates users wish to purchase.
Due to the shift from FBML to iframes, I believe we will see the proliferation of third-party tools such as these, as not everyone will want to learn the intricacies of the new iframe technology.
Facebook's announcement about the shift from FBML to iframes raised a collective groan among Fan page owners. However, the use of iframes holds great promise both in terms of the types of interactivity that can now be introduced, as well as the capability for deeper integration between the merchant's website and Facebook page. Though there is no immediate pressure to make the shift, administrators should at least begin contemplating it.