2011 is nearing its halfway point, and we’ve already seen some dramatic changes in the social media world. The tablet war is heating up, social shopping has become big business, and just this week, Microsoft announced the purchase of Skype for a whopping $8.5 billion. 2011 has also been a big year for Facebook, with its still-growing user base and the increasing promience of “find us on Facebook” messaging in ads from everything from Nissan cars to Energizer batteries to Macy’s Deparment stores to Fancy Feast cat food.

Facebook has also made several key changes to its site in the first half of 2011. We detail these changes below, discuss what these changes mean for Facebook and it users, and look forward to changes that are reportedly in the works for the rest of 2011.

Instant Comments

In 2011, Facebook made it even easier for friends and fans to share their comments. In March, Facebook removed the “comment” button, previously the last step in the commenting process. Instead of a button,  users simply need to press ”enter,” and the post appears in the news feed.

This change is more than just about ease-of-use, however. This faster submit process is a signal of the primacy of data in the Facebook ecosystem.

Facebook’s astronomically high value (currently projected at $50 billion) is largely due to its ability to foster countless, continuous conversations among its over half a billion members. Every company wants to the know what the world thinks of its new product – Facebook is the closest we’ve come to developing a way to do just that.

By making comments that much easier to submit, Facebook is in effect generating more and more data to add to its arensal. The comment button provided users with a prompt to review their content before submitting it. By replacing it with a keystroke,  Facebook has in effect moved sharing into the composition process. A click requires a shift in focus from the keys to the cursor. ”Enter” is just another keystroke. Only this keystroke just happens to publish your thoughts to the world.

How can all of this derive from just one missing button? When you are dealing with a worldwide network the size of Facebook, one change can impact how the world shares information.

The New Business Page

Back in December 2010, Facebook unveiled its new profile page layout, which featured a new “about me” section, thumbnails of recent photos and improved navigation. In February, this new layout . No doubt all of you who are business page administrators remember this shift, and, like us, you are probably still finding new ways to optimize within this new design (shown below).

Our key conclusion? Images are increasingly important in this new layout. That means that brands should make an effort to add new, relevant photos to their pages on a regular basis, in order to give it a fresh look. You can also custom-design images to appear in these five slots. For example, displays five images that display its services and reinforce its brand imagery, while highlights popular new releases. For a step-by-step guide on how to create and manage a custom photo ribbon, see this detailed post from Laura at Blogging Bistro.

We encourage you to experiment with this image preview feature, with one caveat. Since they have such prime placement on your page, these images should always be relevant, appropriate and consistent with your company’s message.

Facebook Deals

Look out Groupon and LivingSocial, Facebook’s long-awaited local deals site is here! Facebook Deals first appeared in late 2010 as a part of Facebook’s Places, the site’s first foray into location-aware activity. In April, Facebook unveiled an updated Deals program, shifting its focus from Foursquare-like loyalty points to Groupon-style, limited-time local deals. The program is only operating in five “test” cities (Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, San Diego and San Francisco), but there are plans to extend it to other cities later this year.

What does Facebook Deals mean for your business? First, it offers you a way to seemingly integrate your “daily deals” with your current Facebook business page (see example ), and market your deal to your target markets with speed, precision and cost-efficiency. For more details, check out Facebook’s .

More broadly, Deals signals Facebook’s plans to promote . In addition to paying with a credit card, Deals can be purchases using these credits, which act as a ”virtual currency.” (Facebook credits are already playing a role in Facebook-specific games like Zynga’s ubiquitous FarmVille.) Similar virtual currencies have taken off within popular social networks in Asia, and Facebook hopes that U.S. consumers will adopt them in large numbers within the next couple of years.

Why does Facebook care about developing its own currency? They care because if it takes off, it means a lot more money for Facebook! Experts predict that Facebook will make up to from Credits in 2011. The biggest current source of Credit revenue is gaming – Facebook takes a 30% cut from game developers for every Credits transaction. Facebook has yet to release information regarding its revenues from Deals, but you can be certain that a similar revenue split is in the works. In the end, the expansion of the Deals platform could introduce a large number of new users to the Credits system.

Looking Ahead

Facebook’s upcoming changes are highly anticipated events that are also closely-held secrets. As such, we in the social media marketing world speculate as to Facebook’s next big thing, all the while knowing that the proof will only come when Facebook decides to make it public.

So what are our best guesses as to Facebook’s future for the rest of 2011 and beyond? We are confident that they will continue to encourage users to share more and more information via increasingly powerful mobile functionality and the continued spread of the “Like” button. We also expect to see Deals expand, and Facebook Credits to slowly make their move into the mainstream. In other words, Facebook will only get bigger in 2012.

What is your reaction to Facebook’s new features? Did you notice the disappearance of the Comment button, and do you miss it? How have you optimized your business page in light of the new layout? Have you tried Facebook Deals, either as a purchaser or a seller? If so, what do you think of it so far? Share this and more in the comments below, or on our (you guessed it) .