With its new and soon-to-be-ubiquitous Open Graph initiative, Facebook is poised to become the great network of networks that circulates the majority of traffic on the web. For publishers, that is a good thing. And for Google, that is very, very threatening.
Last week’s announcements from Facebook at the f8 conference have sparked a great deal of discussion among the tech community and privacy advocates, but have left many publishers confused amidst discussion of plugins, SDKs, and the “semantic web”. Setting aside the tech garble, the new social sharing features introduced with the Facebook Open Graph are extremely positive for most publishers (a few exceptions correctly noted by Alex Iskold at ReadWriteWeb) and should be adopted sooner rather than later.
Facebook’s Open Graph allows your readers to “like” a topic or article, thereby sharing it with their Facebook friends and in some cases, creating a permanent link in their profile. It also will allow your site visitors to see who among their friends have liked your content and any comments that have been left. Finally, Facebook can use passive browsing behavior on partner sites to recommend content to their users. The downside for publishers is that at least currently, you don’t have direct access to this user-generated content: it is stored only by Facebook and can be used by them however they like (most likely to target ads on their site, potentially from your competitors).
However, the upside for publishers is significant: in a nutshell, Facebook is re-introducing serendipity. Top media brands are experts at creating compelling content and experiences. Consumers like to share high-quality content, and the easier that process is, the more that content is passed around and the authors benefit from viral distribution. While media companies are effective at cross-promotion, such as the lead-ins in TV, many traditional media companies have failed to harness word-of-mouth marketing online to expand their audience. Rather than a TV / Preview guide of available content (Yahoo attempted this for the web in the 1990s until it became unmanageable) consumers will now get a personalized guide to online content, authored by their friends. Effectively, it’s Tivo Suggestions (based on your viewing behavior + ratings) with the added intelligence of your friends’ preferences. What remains to be seen is how aggressively Facebook will promote the passively recommended content within your news stream.
Content sharing favors well-authored, branded experiences, which contrasts with the Google referral engine which favors “relevance” to a search phrase based on a mathematical algorithm. In a Google-dominated world, high-quality content can take back seat to keyword-heavy SEO-optimized pages, or simply newer content. That said, search has never been an end-all tool: blogs have grown in popularity because they are editorialized collections of content and opinions. However, Open Graph effectively explodes the number of content critics, now enabling consumers to glean the preferences of a large number of their friends rather than the small minority who take the time to blog. Media companies can spend more time focusing on creating outstanding experiences, and less time optimizing for Google results.
Facebook has already established itself as the new rising force for serendipity, but this new Open Graph goes much farther. Instead of relying solely on proactive recommendations, Facebook is now in a position with automatic login on many sites to passively collect consumption data, and pair that with friends’ behaviors to make suggestions. The better they utilize this data, the more Google needs to watch out, as Facebook can anticipate consumer desires faster than consumers can type “google” into their browsers.