Facebook's SEO Facelift

Calling all spiders! Facebook wants its profiles to be part of your Web.

Facebook will soon open up its 39 million profile pages to give them more visibility in search engines. As Danny Sullivan points out at Search Engine Land, search engines already index Facebook profiles -- though only about 25,000 are indexed, according to Amit Agarwal; that's 0.064% of all profiles. To date, profile indexing has largely been on an opt-in basis, but Facebook is now switching to an opt-out model.

Facebook isn't exposing entire profiles to search engines. Instead, Facebook creates "public search listings" based on the profiles. Facebook tells members, "Your public search listing consists of your name and the thumbnail version of your profile picture. This listing will be shown to people who search for your name when they are not logged in to Facebook." The listing also includes links for Facebook users to send you messages, view your friends, poke you, or add you to their friend lists. Facebook notes that while search preferences within Facebook are updated automatically, the engines will be slower to act on any changes.



Does this herald some new era of Facebook SEO? Will Facebook members revolt en masse and join social networks for the Amish? Will Britney ever live down her MTV Video Music Awards performance? We'll answer most of those questions below.

Facebook sets the standard for user privacy controls. While it's fun to write about controversy, such as the idea that Facebook users will rebel against the site's newfound search engine optimization, the press has hardly covered the many privacy controls Facebook has in place.

First, Facebook members can control who can find their profiles within the site - friends, people in shared networks, or everyone. Only if "everyone" is selected will Facebook provide members with the option of allowing others to see their public search listings. If that option is checked, members can then allow public listings to be indexed by search engines. If you're on Facebook, this is all available under the Privacy Settings for Search; if you're not, you can find screen shots on my blog.

This granular level of control is a rare treat for Facebook's members. By contrast, the privacy controls for Orkut, Google's social network, only allow members to control whether their profile changes are visible to friends and whether friends can see who visits each others' homepages. MySpace is hardly better, allowing members to control who views their birthday,  who views their profile (such as if it's restricted to members 18 and older, which anyone can lie about), and blocking individual users. Yahoo 360 offers basic controls for who can view members' profiles and how profiles appear.

The one major network that's on par with Facebook here is LinkedIn, which lets users control specifically which profile sections to include on their Public Profile; I can have mine, for instance, show details about my career history while hiding my personal interests. Members can even choose their Public Profile URL -- I chose dberkowitz but could just as easily have chosen something like marketingmaven (sorry, that one's taken). Expect social networks to offer more controls along the lines of what Facebook and LinkedIn provide to bolster the trust of their members.

We finally move beyond News Feed Optimization (NFO). Some bloggers have taken a stab at describing how to optimize listings for Facebook news feeds, the updates that every Facebook user sees as their homepage when logging in. Justin Smith's elaborate write-up on NFO on Inside Facebook is much more about making content as viral as possible on Facebook, rather than optimizing it any particular way. It's fun to try to coin new terms, but this is a buzzword without any substance behind it.

The attention on search will put more pressure on Facebook to improve its internal search engine. If you know exactly what you're looking for on Facebook, you can probably find it through its search engine. Yet when you're trying to sort search results by, say, the alumni from your alma mater who joined Facebook most recently or the groups with the most members, you'll have a tough time sifting through the pages of results. Interestingly, if the search functionality improves, then there may well be some opportunities for optimizing listings for Facebook's search results -- yet that would be a stretch, and any optimizing should require a matter of minutes, rather than full-time resources.

Competition intensifies at people search sites. Wink, Spock, ZoomInfo, and other people search engines are trying to capitalize on one of the ultimate "long tail" search categories. The competition includes social networks like MySpace and LinkedIn, white pages directories, and, in several ways, the major engines themselves. As social networks are used more as people search engines (discussed in my previous column ), all the sites will keep focusing more on SEO to try to outrank each other. The goal for these sites is to gain a couple clicks monthly on each of millions of listings, though certain sites like Spock can capitalize on mass reach terms like celebrity searches (Spock fall short with Britney, however, as there were no references or photos from her VMA implosion a day after the event, and a day before this column's publication).

In opening its profile listings more broadly to search engines, Facebook sets an example for how communities should let members set their own preferences. Even that's not foolproof, as most people are now just starting to understand the importance of personal reputation management online, and even some of those who understand it don't care enough about it. Facebook has struck that perfect balance of respecting its members while refraining from trying to protect them from themselves.

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