Cute kids. Cute puppy. Cute extortion scheme.
The Heisenberg principle states: the act of observing alters the reality being observed. The Carr principle (which I came up with this morning while eating breakfast) states: the act of searching alters the reality being searched.
The first web search engines based their results either on recommendations submitted by surfers or on the text of web pages. But as soon as a lot of folks started searching, these signals became corrupted. Site owners, seeing the commercial value of high search rankings, started to game the system. They flooded the recommendation systems with self-serving recommendations and they loaded their pages up with junk text written to push the pages up higher in the text-based rankings. (Remember those long stretches of repeated phrases tacked on to the ends of pages?)
Google came up with the more sophisticated idea of using links as signals of page quality. It worked great for a while. But then it spawned an entire “search engine optimization” industry bent on gaming the link system. The corruption of links forced Google to start tracking all sorts of other signals in hopes of staying ahead of the SEO goons and their corporate patrons.
Now, Facebook has introduced what it calls Graph Search. One of the main signals that Facebook is using to rank results is, not surprisingly, the “Likes” that it tracks via the Like buttons and other links it has spread across the web like so many dandelion seeds. Search companies in the past usually tried to choose uncorrupted signals as the criteria for their rankings. They wanted to give good, objective results in order to attract users. The corruption of the signals came later, after it became clear that the search results had commercial value. Facebook is taking a different tack. It’s starting with a signal—Likes—that is already corrupted, that in fact has always been corrupted. People routinely Like a thing not because they actually like it, not because they have (to use a favorite Facebook word) any real affiliation with it, but because they’ve been, in one way or another, bribed to Like it.
Like us on Facebook to download our new single! Like us on Facebook to get 10% off your next purchase! Like us on Facebook to get a chapter of our new e-book for free! Like us on Facebook to enter our sweepstakes! Like us on Facebook so our dad will give us a puppy!
Facebook never wanted Likes to be objective indicators of real affection, or even a vague feeling of fondness. The Like button was designed as a marketing tool, as Steve Cheney explains:
Early on FB made the case to brands that they must have fans… together with the ad agencies they convinced the Cokes of the world to spend money to be competitive (hey Pepsi is here too). Then, FB promised, something miraculous would happen. Your friends would see in their news feed you liked Coke! So… FB convinced big advertisers to spend huge sums on CPA-like ad units whose sole purpose was to acquire fans. Ad agencies dedicated creative, planning and strategy resources to get the Cokes and American Expresses of the world to pay to have users click—almost 100% of the time because the user was promised some sweepstake or contest.
Even the normally decorous New Yorker got in on the act:
If you can’t read that, it says: “You must like The New Yorker to read the full text.” And some 17,000 Facebookers dutifully clicked the Like button. Jonathan Franzen must have been thrilled to see his essay used as a worm to bait a rusty Facebook hook.
It might seem kind of strange for a company to build a search engine — a pretty costly undertaking — using criteria that it knows to be debased, to be anything but objective. But to Facebook, it’s business-as-usual. Here’s the difference between Google and Facebook: Larry Page recognized that commercial corruption was a threat to his ideal. For Mark Zuckerberg, commercial corruption is the ideal.
Now, to be fair, corruption is not the same as absolute corruption. A corrupted search engine can still be immensely useful, as Google shows us every day. And a lot of Facebook Likes are actually likes. To be even fairer, Likes are not the only signal that is determining Graph Search’s results, and some of the other signals are probably, at the moment, purer indicators of affiliation and relevance. But you can bet a million Likes that the SEOers are already hard at work deciphering all those signals and their weightings in hopes of gaming the system. And they will succeed. If you see “social” as an antidote or counterweight to “commercial” on the web, the arrival of Graph Search should make your hair stand on end.
And, yes, the kids got their puppy.