Facebook is making a series of design changes to the site to make it clearer to users who can see the content that they post, an issue Google has been criticizing Facebook about since it launched its own social network, Google+, in June.
"You have told us that 'who can see this?' could be clearer across Facebook, so we have made changes to make this more visual and straightforward," Facebook said in a blog post on Tuesday.
The main change is that Facebook will now display the intended audience for a photo, a text post, a tag or any other piece of content right next to it, or "inline" as stated in the blog post. Until now, those controls have been on a separate Settings section of the profile.
"Your profile should feel like your home on the web -- you should never feel like stuff appears there that you don't want, and you should never wonder who sees what's there," the post reads.
Now, every piece of content on a user's profile will have a drop-down menu that lists its current access level, and other available options for changing it. These include sharing something only with people on one's "friends" list, with "friends of friends," with "everyone" on or off Facebook, or with a "custom" hand-picked list of people. The "everyone" option is changing its name to "public" because Facebook has determined the word "public" is more descriptive of that broad level of access.
These "inline" access options will also be added to the content-posting box so that they are more easily accessible to people when they're posting new photos, videos or written messages.
"This dropdown menu will be expanding over time to include smaller groups of people you may want to share with, like co-workers, Friend Lists you've created, and Groups you're a member of. These will make it easy to quickly select exactly the audience you want for any post," Facebook's blog post said.
Since launching Google+, Google has been claiming that its site offers a simpler, more effective way to share content than Facebook. Google has said that Facebook's privacy and content-sharing controls are too complex and inconvenient, leading users to often share inadvertently with a larger audience than intended.
While the jury is still out on whether Google+'s Circles feature indeed offers an improvement over Facebook's functionality, Facebook's move today clearly seems motivated to address any competitive advantage Google may be trying to get with Circles.
Google+ Vice President of Product Bradley Horowitz said Google deserves part of the credit for Facebook's changes.
"I think it's good for users, which is exciting for us. The reason we wake up in the morning is to build great experiences for users, and I think what they did was familiar and good for users," he said during a webcast interview with Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, on Tuesday afternoon.
"That's another impact Google+ can have in the world: raising the bar on what the expectations and standards around privacy should be, so that's a great outcome," Horowitz added.
Industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence said that while Google+ may have been part of the motivation for the changes, Facebook has heard similar criticism over the years from other sources, including its own users.
Whatever the reason, Facebook is hitting all the right notes with the tweaks. "What they are doing is very good: making all the privacy controls more explicit and available on a more granular basis," Sterling said.
These privacy controls have been "kind of hidden" in the Settings section, and so have not been used as much or as wisely as they should be, he said. "These changes are overdue, welcome and very positive for users," Sterling said.
It will be interesting to see what impact these changes have on Google+, which is still in a limited, invitation-only beta period, he said. The Circles content-sharing feature has been considered one of Google+'s best weapons against Facebook, Sterling said.
It's estimated that Google+ has about 25 million users, while Facebook has in excess of 750 million.
Another change Facebook is introducing is allowing users to modify the audience of a post after it's published, which they couldn't do before, the company said.
Facebook is also introducing a review period for photos and posts in which users are tagged, giving the tagged users a chance to review the photo or post before it's displayed on their profile, in case they want to un-tag themselves.
A feature Facebook has had for years, which lets users see how their profile looks to another user, is gaining a more prominent placement in the profile page to make it more easily accessible and promote its usage.
Along with the privacy-awareness changes, Facebook is also expanding users' ability to tag others and label posts with geographical locations.
Previously, users could only tag people on their "friends" list, but now it will be possible to tag anyone. With locations, it was only possible to "check in" with the Places feature on a smartphone, but now people will be able to add location tags from any device, and apply them not only to places but also to status updates, photos or other posts.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.