Facebook Friends' Names Leak Into Search Engine Results

Nichola Stott/Facebook

Facebook members have begun to realize that the ramifications of not opting-in to privacy controls that lock down information in profiles may go well beyond their control. The old adage that every action has consequences appears to have surfaced in Google search engine results.

Some people who chose not to opt-in to Facebook privacy settings have found their name in search results on google.com; and listed beneath, the names of a few of their Facebook friends. There's one problem. Unfortunately, Facebook members who choose to keep their profiles public, rather than opt-in to privacy settings, take their friends who want to remain private into the open, too. They do it unknowingly and unwillingly.

Take Nichola Stott, for example. The co-founder of TheMediaFlow -- who specializes in search, social media and online monetization -- admits to not setting up Facebook privacy walls, but believes the issue focuses more around having to opt-in to a variety of confusing privacy settings that many may not understand. Although she chooses to keep her profile open, some of her friends -- such as business partner Stephen Adds -- do not.

Adds -- TheMediaFlow co-founder and director of strategy and monetization -- initiated Facebook privacy options, but as a friend of Nichola, he also gets pulled into the fray. Do a search on "Stephen Adds" and friends appear under his name in the search engine results page (SERP).

Stott calls it counterintuitive regardless of what Facebook Terms and Conditions or manually controlled privacy settings may permit. It makes her feel "unnerved, but not surprised," she says, "I knew it was coming."

It appears that the list of friends in search engine queries have begun to surface most recently on Google.co.uk, Stott says. Facebook acknowledged MediaPost's request for comment, but has not responded with an official statement.

A Facebook spokesperson explains that members can control the visibility of public search listing through privacy settings under the "search" section. This setting provides control over what is shared.

"This is public information that Facebook has published using the hCard and XFN microformats that are supported by our Rich Snippets feature," according to a Google spokesperson, pointing me to more information on the topic.

Google pulls into the SERPs public information from Facebook through a prior agreement. More than a year ago, the search engine announced it would support an industry Web standard that lets reviews and other information appear in query results. Not just for Google, but other search engines, too. Webmasters must choose to make the information public, so search engines can crawl and display that data as part of the snippet in the SERP.

In an interesting portrayal of Facebook's privacy maze, The New York Times points out that anyone wanting to protect their privacy will need to navigate through 50 settings with more than 170 options. Facebook says it wants to offer precise controls for sharing on the Internet, but instead created a maze that not even the brightest want to follow.

Several Google engineers, including Matt Cutts, have deactivated their Facebook accounts, along with others across the tech industry.

So when people like Robert Scoble and others proudly proclaim their Facebook page an open book, remember it could bring others along with out into the open who choose to remain private. There's nothing wrong with deciding to share private information with the world, for those who choose to do it. Just something to keep in mind.

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2 comments about "Facebook Friends' Names Leak Into Search Engine Results".
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , May 17, 2010 at 8:37 a.m.

    Not sure why I should care that my friends are revealed, especially when the definition of "friend" is pretty loose in the Facebook world. I just Googled "Doug Ferguson Facebook" and read names of distant acquaintances whom I friended because I wanted a loose connection, not necessarily close friends. Facebook doesn't allow a hierarchy of acquaintances, e.g., close friend, old friend, family relative, former classmate, casual acquaintance, etc. Having one word for friend is the problem. Privacy? Not everyone feels the need to be private, especially when Intelius is allowed to sell my information.

  2. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications , May 17, 2010 at 5:41 p.m.

    Yawn.... If you're part of the Facebook universe, you know the definition of "friend" is: anyone who ever bought a box of toothpicks at the same store where your mother's boyfriend's ex-wife's third cousin shops. I've never had an account because of all the Facebook woes I've heard from personal & business acquaintances. Personally I'm not interested in how much the plumber charged or what brand of dental floss is on sale or what color shoes the doctor's receptionist was wearing. If privacy is all that important to you, go out and make some real friends and quit trolling the internet for relationships. IMHO nothing beats email, texting and Skype for staying connected with the persons who are important to me, and I've never yet had a problem with privacy.