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Facebook wants Pages to be your go-to for info on restaurants, shops

The world's largest social network offers new features to help businesses keep in touch with customers and better advertise their wares and services, particularly on mobile devices.

Facebook's new Pages features turn it into a sort of personal website for businesses. Facebook

Facebook is expanding the information businesses can advertise for free, hoping to lure more of its 1 billion daily users to the website's promotional service.

The social-networking giant said Tuesday it will begin allowing businesses to use its Pages profile service to promote products they sell and services they offer. Massage parlors will be able to describe the different techniques they can perform, for example, while restaurants will be able to encourage customers to easily contact them after scanning their operating hours and menu. The features, which are the biggest changes to Pages in three years, will become available in the coming weeks.

Facebook isn't just offering new capabilities. It has also redesigned the way Pages look in order to appeal to mobile-device owners. The layout makes Pages look almost like a website unto itself, with a "home" page separated from published photos, posts and whatever other information a company wants to offer. Facebook has also added a prominent "call to action" button that encourages users to either send a message or book an appointment with the tap of a finger.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the social network's efforts can make a difference for businesses, adding that 35 percent of businesses in the US don't have an online presence at all. Building a website takes time and money, and mobile apps are even harder. "Small businesses, large businesses, all of us need to connect to people on mobile," she said during an event at the company's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

If businesses sign up for the new features, they will add to the already expansive information available to the more than 1 billion people who use the social network. The result could intensify competition between Facebook and search giant Google, the largest recipient of advertising on the Web. Google has already integrated information about businesses into the services it offers, ranging from maps to reviews. Against Amazon, the Web's largest retailer, Facebook could start persuading customers to buy products directly through its site. And in competition with business-review service Yelp, Facebook could become a widely used alternative.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says more than 45 million small businesses use Pages. Ian Sherr/CNET

Of course, businesses won't sign up if the service isn't helping them. So far, Facebook said the companies it's given early access to are seeing benefits.

Amazing Fairytale Parties, an Oregon-based small business that puts on theme parties with organizers dressed up as characters who sing and play games, said it estimates 99 percent of inquiries it receives through Facebook turn into a booking. About half of all inquiries come from Facebook as well, making Facebook a key way to market toward new customers.

Facebook's new Pages features have helped larger companies as well. The Dutch airline KLM created a "Book Now" button on its Facebook page. Between April and May of this year, the airline said it counted nearly $1 million in airline tickets purchased directly as a result of people using its Facebook page.

As more information is added to Facebook, it will help fuel other efforts as well, such as its search algorithms designed to more easily pull up relevant information and an artificial-intelligence assistant that helps users with tasks like finding businesses and reserving tables at restaurants.

Right now, Facebook's goal is merely to attract more businesses to its service, an effort the company has been pushing over the past year. Some of that has included offering new technology to help companies communicate with users, holding workshops around the country to teach companies how to best use its Pages and advertising features and experimenting with new ways to sell products straight from its site.

Until now, Pages has been a largely one-size-fits-all service that allowed businesses to post a few photos and videos, as well as straight-forward information like store hours and contact information. Pages was particularly popular with celebrities because it allowed them to connect with fans, who would "like" them.

The service is also used by large companies, but Facebook is hoping it can attract more small businesses. As part of that effort, Facebook is planning to build specialized features for different types of businesses.

Michael Brandvold, who runs a marketing agency for musicians in Sausalito, Calif., said he's thinking about how to apply these new features to the 50 or so pages he runs. He typically uses Facebook to promote tour dates, albums and new music, such as from the heavy metal band Dream Theater. He said mobile-device features so far haven't been built with clients like his in mind, but the new options available for Pages are a good start. "I'm encouraged by this," he said.

Facebook said 45 million small and medium businesses use Pages, up from 30 million in February. About 1 million businesses sign up each month, the company added.

Still, that's not all businesses in the world, nor even all the businesses that likely would benefit from using Facebook. That's why Benji Shomair, head of product marketing for Pages, said his team is continuing to build new capabilities and reach out to businesses in events like the one held Wednesday. "We're trying to create building blocks that companies can use to assemble them," he said.