Facebook’s Alternative Internet Vision And Its Search Implications

I attended the F8 Facebook developer event this morning and might have live blogged it but the public WiFi connection was extremely slow. Maybe that’s a good thing; aspects of what were announced had me confused, especially the privacy issues raised by the announcements. I’m not a developer and this event was geared toward them; much of the keynote was about code and simplifying integration and so on.

That aside, the vision articulated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Bret Taylor, formerly of Google and Friend Feed (acquired by Facebook), is of a more social internet, where relationships between people and things replace links between pages. The vision represents a shift from a Google-centric internet comprised of billions of unrelated documents and sites to a Facebook centric one where social relationships and affiliations are the connective tissue in a vast network.

The “Open Graph” — in which there’s information sharing between Facebook and other sites — reflects a hugely ambitious vision that began two years ago with Facebook apps and extended to Facebook Connect and now evolves to a larger initiative that makes Facebook the hub. A overly simplistic analogy would be: Facebook is the Sun and other sites are the planets.

At the center of the Open Graph concept is your identity anchored in your Facebook profile, but supplemented by actions (“Likes”) you take on other sites.

Back to the basics. Facebook formally announced three things:

  • Social Plugins
  • Open Graph Protocol
  • Graph API

There are three social plugins: Like, Activity and Recommendations plug ins. The most important of these is the Like button. This was widely anticipated.

Publishers and developers can add a Like button to any page on any site. Adding that button effectively turns it into a Facebook fan page.

Here’s the official description: ” [The] Like button offers users a lightweight and consistent way to share the things and topics that interest them.” For example Yelp, one of the launch partners, is adding a Like button to every local business profile page.

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By clicking “Like” (and being logged into Facebook) you transmit that you like a business, in this case, back to your profile and feed. But you might equally Like a band (on Pandora) or Like a news story (on CNN) or a movie (on IMDB). Those Likes become part of your identity and in turn part of the data available to other publishers and sites in the “Open Graph” that Facebook envisions.

In the future all that public identity information, including Likes, will become available to Bing and maybe Google. Likes will also be enshrined in a specific area on your Facebook profile.

You must still authorize the sharing of your digital identity and public information with publishers. I asked Facebook about the following scenario: A user on Yelp “Likes” a sushi restaurant; can Urbanspoon later access my Yelp Likes (e.g., that sushi restaurant) to personalize Urbanspoon? The answer is yes.

In the Open Graph Urbanspoon can get access to my Likes on Yelp and any other site on which I’ve clicked the Like button. But Urbanspoon still needs my permission and authorization to access that data. This wasn’t entirely clear from the presentations or press conference. I had to talk to multiple people to gain clarity on the permissions and privacy issues.

The other social plug-ins, Activity feed and Recommendations feed, help make third party publisher sites more “social” in a couple of different ways, by showing me what my friends like or are doing on those sites. Again, all the sharing of information needs to be authorized by the user. It’s not entirely clear that Facebook users understand all the privacy settings on the site. And it’s far from clear that they’ll understand the implications of the new expanded sharing announced today. Facebook in my mind has the burden of explaining it to them.

For their part I think Facebook executives believe they have built in sufficient controls and privacy safeguards. I think they also perhaps incorrectly believe that ordinary Facebook users understand all the privacy controls.

The two other announcements, the Open Graph Protocol and Graph API, are strictly for developers/publishers. These tools make it easier for them to implement a Facebook log-in and integrate social features into their sites (the term “Facebook Connect” is going away but the functionality will remain). Facebook said that more than 75 partners were participating already and Mark Zuckerberg predicted that there would be “One billion Like buttons on the web within 24 hours after launch.”

There was also brief discussion of a social toolbar that could sit at the bottom of any website and offer a range of social functionality to users. Facebook had been expected to announce a location API or geotagging. That announcement didn’t come but it is likely coming in the near future.

One skeptic at the press conference characterized this as Facebook’s effort to “colonize the web.” I wouldn’t go that far, but these tools and capabilities expand Facebook’s potential reach and influence across the internet. I would bet that publishers, for whom the benefits are very tangible, will broadly embrace and implement these tools. Facebook Connect has been broadly embraced because it offers clear benefits to publishers. These new tools go further to make any site much more social.

Facebook will eventually be sitting on a mountain of secondary data or metadata: favorite restaurants, places, musicians and many more categories of information. All this data will be structured and associated with its millions and millions of users. What it does or doesn’t do with that information and data will also be interesting to watch. Facebook executives denied there was any associated monetization scheme in the wings. We’ll see.

The phrase “semantic metadata” was mentioned several times throughout the keynote. And the vision of a web of connected identities and associated data leads to some interesting possibilities — even search opportunities.

However, the vision here is a network of discovery tools and information that operate higher up in the funnel than search: what are my friends doing, where are they eating, what do they recommend? This clearly doesn’t eliminate the need for search. But it does represent an alternative way in many cases to discover information.

Yet the mountains of data that Facebook will gain could improve Facebook search results and potentially the coming, new and improved Bing integration. At a simple level, if Facebook knows the most “Liked” sushi restaurants in New York and those liked by my social network it can show me that information in search results. That hypothetically makes Facebook search much more social and more of a “recommendations engine” than Google at this point.

But this is all speculation on my part right now. Because Facebook doesn’t have a really good search experience it remains less “useful” than Google. But it is possible to imagine a much improved Bing integration combined with data and metadata gleaned from millions of profiles and “Likes” across the internet — making Facebook a more personal, more social and much better “discovery engine” than it is today.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Facebook | Microsoft: Bing | Search Engines: Social Search Engines | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • malcolmlewis

    If this is widely embraced by users and websites that publish info on consumable products and services then Facebook search becomes a better place to start a commercial search than Google since the results are generated/filtered by my social graph. It’s a clever move since it erodes at Google’s core position of strength as the site where most people start most of their searches.

  • http://www.netgrowthgroup.com Alec Campbell

    Hi Greg – great article. Thanks for including such detail on the developments. A couple of questions for you.

    – has this been announced or this an opinion?

    – they’re building a network of interrelated websites all tied together through user profiles and juicy demographic information. Sounds like an “uber” ad network to me. How about you?

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