Will all those "like" buttons make Facebook bigger than Google?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 22 2010 5:43 PM

Facebook's Plan To Take Over the Web

Will all those "like" buttons make Facebook bigger than Google?

Facebook "Like" Button. Click image to expand.
Mark Zuckerberg

Your favorite Web sites are now plugged in to the Facebook brain. On the streaming music service Pandora, you can now press "Like" on any song you hear; that preference will get shuttled back into the social network, alerting your friends to your newfound musical interest. You can do the same for a movie on IMDb, a restaurant on Yelp, a news story on CNN.com, cosmetics at Sephora.com, jeans at Levi's, and dozens of other products and services all over the Web, including everything published here on Slate. These tiny, new "like" buttons look quite friendly and unassuming. Don't be fooled. They're the vanguard of Facebook's brilliant, unstoppable plan to catalog the entire Web, and there's a good chance that over the next few years they'll help the social network remake everything online.

The "like" buttons are part of a grand initiative that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, unveiled at the company's developer conference in San Francisco this week. The details of the  rollout are technical, but the big story is easy to understand: Facebook is co-opting the rest of the Web. Facebook has often been derided as "walled garden," a service that doesn't let users interact with much of anything outside those monochromatic blue borders. The conventional wisdom among techies is that walled gardens never last—however many members they attract, people stuck inside the garden will eventually want to escape to greener pastures outside. (Remember Prodigy and CompuServe?) Zuckerberg and Co. are well-aware of these dangers, and over the last few years the site has gradually opened itself up to outside services. But Facebook isn't tearing down its walls. It's just expanding them. It's inviting the rest of the Web to play in the garden, blurring all lines between what's Facebook and what's not.

From now on, you'll be interacting with Facebook even when you're far away from Facebook.com. In addition to the "like" buttons, Web developers can install a series of Facebook plugins. Sites can let you use your Facebook account to log in to their services and to add comments. They can also show you which of your Facebook friends has joined the site and which pages your friends "liked," as well as serve up recommendations based on you and your friends' preferences. Zuckerberg says these plugins will make the Web more "social," and that making a page social makes people more likely to interact with it.

I'm guessing he's right: I'd visit Yelp more often if my experience there was personalized—if my restaurant ratings could be highlighted for my friends, or if I could see a list of recommendations for local cafes based on places that my Facebook friends have "liked." Or consider how Pandora will use Facebook's system. The music-recommendations site takes some time to set up, as it personalizes its playlist based on the tracks you listen to over a long period of time. With access to your Facebook profile, though, Pandora should be able to determine instantly what songs to play, even if you've never visited the site before. Nearly every Web site could benefit from similar personalization. Think of how much more useful you'd find a shopping site if it made consistently good recommendations based on your known likes and dislikes. Or consider how much safer you'd feel signing up to a new tax-preparation company if you saw that your friends had Liked it. From now on, none of us will surf alone; people you trust can help you organize and vet every corner of the Web.

But Facebook's announcement wouldn't be revolutionary if it were just about plugins. After all, the Web is already overrun with plugins—scroll to the bottom of this page to see buttons that let you share this story on Twitter, Digg, Yahoo, and other services. What makes Facebook's "likes" any more powerful than those other icons? A couple of things. First, Facebook is staggeringly popular. Its growth curve resembles that of a nuclear chain reaction just before it reaches critical mass; it has 400 million regular users, and not only does it keep growing, it keeps growing faster. What's more, Facebook members are ferociously active—they can't stop clicking around Facebook and the rest of the Web. Every month, people on Facebook collectively share 25 billion links with one another. Facebook Connect, the sign-on service that the social network launched two years ago, has been adopted by more than 80,000 third-party sites, and more than 100 million Facebook members use it. In just the 24 hours since "like" buttons began popping up on sites like Slate, Facebook estimates they will get 1billion clicks.

And that's the second part of this story: Every one of those "likes"—a billion statements of preference every day, 365 billion every year, at least—will get filed back at Facebook HQ. It is difficult to overestimate the value, to Facebook, of all this activity. Remember that the social network already has the world's largest database of connections among people. Now, very soon, it will also have the largest database connecting people to the things they enjoy, whether those things are news stories, restaurants, songs, books, movies, jeans, cosmetics, or anything else. Yes, lots of other firms mine our online activity, but Facebook's system will be all the more powerful because it is voluntary. We, Facebook's hordes, are actively filling in the slots in its database, giving the company an extremely accurate picture of ourselves and our friends. No other company will have anything like Facebook's towering database of human intentions and desires—not even Google.

This might sound apocalyptic. I don't mean it that way. Facebook isn't the first company to see the entire Web as its playground, and it won't be the last. Google already occupies this place in our lives, and the search company still reigns as the Web's leading profiler of information. Facebook says it has not sacrificed privacy to build these latest tools—read this FAQ to learn more about all the controls you'll have over these new plugins. On the other hand, many Facebook users have long been concerned about the way the site treats their private information, and the latest moves are bound to increase these worries.

We can expect that Facebook, like Google, will use its stash of data in ways that are wonderful and in ways that are creepy. This is the double-edged sword of a digital life. Big companies are tracking you all the time, and they're doing a lot of things you don't like with that information—including serving you ads. But all the data is also extremely useful; Google and Amazon, for instance, are powerful precisely because they know so much about you. It's only by keeping mountains of data that Google can predict when flu season will start or describe the traffic conditions on your morning commute.

Facebook will surely find ways to make money from all the data it collects. The more you click "like," the better for Facebook to serve you ads tailored to your preferences. But Facebook doesn't have to limit its ads within its site. The company is already using the new plugins to allow third-party sites like Slate to get deep demographic data about the users who visit their pages. It's not a stretch to expect Facebook to build its own behavioral advertising network, a system that lets sites target ads specifically to you.

It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Facebook's system as merely an effort to squeeze revenue from its members. This is more than about money; it's also, as Zuckerberg says, about building ever more useful online tools based on social data. Right now, we can't possibly imagine all the great things that can be determined from this data, just as it was impossible to predict, at Google's founding, that the company could one day use our search queries to forecast flu season. But brilliant innovations are surely coming. In particular, all this information will help Facebook and third-party apps tease out relationships among people, real-world items, and specific pages on the Web. Armed with this data, we can expect better movie-recommendation apps, better dating sites, better online games, and probably a lot more.

At the very least, it will soon become possible for Facebook to build what has been a holy grail for Web data fiends—a "semantic" search engine. Every time a developer adds a "like" button to a Web page, she gives Facebook a little bit of information about the kind of data represented on that page. For instance, as IMDb adds "like" buttons to its pages, the site will tell Facebook which ones represent actors, which ones are directors, and which ones are movies. Facebook will thus get a tiny bit smarter—it will be able to tell the difference between The Rock and The Rock. That might not sound like a big deal, but this is exactly the sort of information that Google spends all its time building algorithms to try to determine. Now Facebook will get it for free, from Web owners themselves. Facebook will also be learning about you, and thus it will be able to guess, based on your profile, whether you're looking for The Rock, rock music, or rock formations.

Is Facebook now poised to topple Google in search? No, likely not. Not soon, anyway. But by extending its tentacles across the Web, Facebook is now primed to make itself as ubiquitous and essential as Google. The world's biggest social network won't be going away. Rather, it's refashioning the Web in its image.

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