Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Facebook, the social graph and privacy - will Facebook become a genuine challenger to Google or will privacy concerns hurt it?

More Facebook stuff in the news and reports about Facebook Groups are continuing to generate attention. Recently we have been told about Groups persuading HSBC to back down on it’s policy to charge interest on student overdrafts from graduation, Groups about Bob Crow and the tube strike, and Groups (following the You Tube campaign) encouraging Cadbury to Bring Back Wispa!

There has also been wide coverage of the decision to make Facebook profiles accessible to Search engines meaning people can see profile information without being a Facebook member. Certain quarters have also started debating how long Facebook will last. Many are starting to say that it is on the way down and that the creators should have sold up and taken the money from Yahoo! last year. Others believe its best is yet to come.

So is it 'game over' for Facebook or is it still early days?


The information Facebook publishes has raised security concerns. Specialists have questioned whether people should include their date of birth on a profile because it is a common question used by banks to establish identity. The announcement that Facebook will soon make personal profiles available to Search Engines has also raised privacy concerns.

There has also been a spate of companies banning use of Facebook from work. It was recently estimated that 70% of London companies have now banned Facebook and a study carried out by Peninsula consultants stated that employees using Facebook lose their employers £130 million a day and ‘waste’ 233 million hours a month.

Finally, there have been difficulties in monetising the vast traffic. There have been a number of (very visible) problems with ad serving against inappropriate content on social networking sites (Vodafone against the BNP profile etc) and the debate about how to regulate content to make it a safe place for advertising is ongoing (censoring content is undesirable as it will put off users, not doing so puts off the advertisers).

The pessimistic view of Facebook’s future is that usage restrictions and privacy concerns, coupled with the novelty factor wearing off and a lack of advertising revenue, means that Facebook could be a flash in the pan and disappear as quickly as it arrived.


The other view is that whilst it is number 4 in the list of web 2.0 sites defined by UK audience (after YouTube, Wikipedia and MySpace), Facebook is actually number 1 in terms of millions of hours spent on the site (5.2 million unique audience, 12.9 million hours – July 2007, Nielsen Net Ratings).

The site is clearly very popular and if the information that 39 million users create can be harnessed then we could see Facebook moving away from its roots as a glorified Friends Reunited, and into some exciting new areas – especially the development of social search. Facebook could use the information from profiles and Groups to drive human-powered, ‘Social search’ (the idea that searching for the ‘best restaurant in north London’ would give you a result derived from human recommendation, rather than a result derived from the restaurant with the best Search Engine Optimisation behind it).

My view is that if Facebook (or one of the major social networking sites) could develop an effective social search engine, we may see a genuine challenger to the dominance of existing algorithmic search. I wrote a letter to Media Week magazine to this effect and they published it today:
“The news that Yahoo! is seeking to develop its own social network comes as no surprise. After all, Yahoo! already has a number of user-generated content channels, including the pace-setting Yahoo! Answers, and, after failing in its bid to buy Facebook, creating its own networking space for students seems entirely logical.

But this move should not just be seen as Yahoo! fighting for a slice of the social network pie. There are obvious commercial benefits from connecting graduate job-seekers with potential employers, but the real gold in Yahoo’s! plans lies in its ability to connect like-minded individuals around shared interests.

The most significant potential will be revealed if someone can find a way of using vast banks of social networking data to power a ‘social search engine.’

Top Table, Amazon and the hosts of other peer-to-peer recommendation sites all work on the principle of user-driven search. But initiatives to date have not achieved enough scale to make them viable. If sites such as Facebook, Wikipedia’s Wikia and Yahoo! can factor human-powered recommendations into their offerings, there could yet be a genuine alternative to algorithmic, computer powered search – and so a challenger to the search hierarchy.”


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