Facebook may be going through some of the growing pains that Google went through earlier in its life. Google has always had to deal with link farms and link buying, polluting its search results, and has gotten better and better at keeping this under control over the years.
Now that Facebook "liking" is taking the place of linking in many cases, Facebook may have a similar issue on its hands. Like farms and like buying aren't entirely new concepts, but since Facebook's developer conference, where it unleashed the open graph and social plugins like "like" buttons all over the web, they have become more of an issue, and will probably continue to do so unless Facebook does something about it.
Would you buy "likes" if you could significantly increase your exposure? Comment here.
Why would you buy likes?
When a user "likes" a piece of content, it shows up in their friends' news feeds. The more friends they have, the more people that "like" will be exposed to. The more friends a person has, however, and the quality of those friends, may place more value on those "likes" from the perspective of those doing the buying. The problem with this, is that those same factors that increase that value may also affect how Facebook provides its search results, and Facebook is going to want to improve that search experience, particularly as competition with Google (in general) heats up.
A couple months ago, AllFacebook had a pair of articles taking a deep look into the gaming of Facebook search results and the rise of the like farm. The topic has been brought up again this week by Nick Saint at Silicon Alley Insider.
"Basically, these sites are enabling the equivalent of Twitter hash tag jokes on Facebook; people see funny sentences pop up in their streams, and indicate their approval by liking them," writes Saint. "This is the Facebook equivalent of retweeting, since all of your friends are notified that you liked the blurb. Many of these entries have been liked by tens of thousands of users, all of whose friends see the updates, which links to the sites, so this is no doubt generating non-negligible ad revenue despite requiring zero effort on the part of the sites' creators. The biggest we've seen, Likey.net, is already seeing over a million uniques per month."
"Once an update has enough likes, it can spread entirely on Facebook," adds Saint. "But to get the process started, someone has to have gone to the site and submitted it in the first place. It's hard to say why -- unlike on Twitter, the original poster of these updates isn't referenced or credited in any way. And the sites look and feel extremely spammy. At least one of them has already been flagged as an attack site by Google, though it's not clear whether the site is itself malicious, or merely the target of third-party attacks."
Like farms stand to have implications on Facebook's search functionality, and Facebook's share of the search market stands to grow along with the proliferation of Facebook itself - not necessarily to Google-like proportions, but for certain kinds of searches - and with Pages becoming more heavily marketed (not to mention the potential of Places), people will search for businesses on Facebook.
"While users are mostly searching Facebook for their friends currently, users will begin to search for more generic topics as Facebook slowly changes user behavior," wrote AllFacebook's Nick O'Neill back in June. "Right now, showing up for the phrase 'discount travel' won't necessarily benefit you, however as Facebook improves their search product and users begin to understand that they can search for things other than their friends, ranking high on various keywords will become increasingly important."
"In the meantime, the numerous 'like farms' that are spamming Facebook with random quotes and phrases (like Likey.net, LikeItPage, and others) will continue to proliferate until Facebook develops a system that determine which add value and which are just spam generators," added O'Neill.
Back to Like Buying
As far as "like buying" is concerned, it's a similar situation. This has the potential to hurt the Facebook user experience, and if Facebook were to penalize Pages similar to how Google does, it could make a big impact.
Inc. just ran a story about how Google cost Ryan Abood's GourmetHandBaskets.com $4 million by penalizing the site for link buying right before the holidays. As Facebook becomes one of the main marketing vehicles of the web, much like Google has been for years (despite the differences in how the two sites operate), it is a situation that his going to have to be looked at and assessed.
Right now, it's unclear what Facebook's policies are on things like "like farms" and "like buying". We've reached out to the company for comment, and will update when we receive it. The point is that Facebook isn't just a way for college kids to look at pictures of each other anymore. People are counting on it for business, and how delicate situations like these are handled will be crucial to operations. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn't have the greatest track record for handling delicate situations.
Facebook likes and Twitter retweets have replaced links in many instances. That's not to say that links are dead by any means, but a lot of people will simply retweet a piece of content or "like" it, rather than blog about it and link to it. This "cannibalizes" the link graph from the search perspective, as Rand Fishkin and our own Mike McDonald discussed a while back, and that makes Facebook and Twitter even more important to pay attention to from the marketing perspective - when some of that juice is going away from search engines and into social networks.
Do you agree that these issues are something Facebook is going to have to take into account? Share your thoughts.