The social network opened up its network last year by making members' profile information available through Google and other search engines. The public search data included basic data such as a member's name, profile photo and photos of some friends. The idea was to allow people who are not registered members to be able to find friends who are on Facebook.
The new feature could help drive traffic to the more than 150,000 sites that marketers and others have set up on Facebook. The expanded public search entries include links to up to five Facebook Pages someone is a fan of.
"Considering that Facebook turned on links to Pages from about 120 million profile page public search listings, the number of new internal links to Pages on the Facebook.com domain this weekend likely increased by several hundred million," wrote Justin Smith, who runs the Inside Facebook Blog and reported on the expanded search listings this week.
So the Gap's 113,000 Facebook fans translate to as many links via search engines. U2's Facebook Page would generate 195,000 links and Barack Obama's would generate more than 3.1 million.
"This step by Facebook increases the weight Google will give to brand Pages," wrote Smith. "Brand and marketing managers should not be surprised to see their Facebook Pages rising in Google search results in the months ahead."
But potential traffic gains for branded Pages from search engine listings could be limited by Facebook's lack of focus on search engine optimization. "The way links on Facebook are structured right now, they don't have the type of permanence that search engines are looking for," said David Berkowitz, director of emerging media and client strategy at search engine marketing firm 360i.
He continued: "Facebook does evolve pretty quickly, but so far they've been a little behind the curve when it comes to SEO."
He also said it's not clear how Facebook will select which fan Pages are displayed in public search entries. Berkowitz noted, for instance, that the 10 Facebook friends shown on his profile through a Google search are not always the same. So Pages could likewise vary from one search to another.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company has begun notifying members of the change through an Engagement Ad--a new interactive unit formally launched this month--that will run on the home page for a couple of weeks to allow people to opt out of having a fan Page displayed in search results.
She added that users have the option to hide Pages from their public search listing at any time from the Facebook's search privacy page.
Nevertheless, Berkowitz added that inclusion in search listings could encourage more marketers to create Pages, which Facebook offers for free. "If this does start fueling search engine rankings, then, given how pervasive SEO is, that will help marketers go about creating these pages and developing them," he said.
For CondeNet, which has been an active marketer on Facebook, including fan Pages in search data is a welcome step. With roughly a dozen Facebook Pages for brands including Wired and Vanity Fair, the online arm of Conde Nast potentially has much to gain.
"We've been working with Facebook in many ways, in applications and advertising," said Sandor Marik, director of marketing for CondeNet. "So in terms of having more exposure in search pages, it can only help with all of those efforts."
In addition to helping drive more traffic to its branded sites on Facebook, he said the move could also help enhance the effectiveness of Facebook's Social Ads. These units--which appear as sponsored content in the News Feed or on the left side of the site--tell members which of their friends are fans of particular brands.
While pleased with the change, Marik said he hopes people searching for CondeNet properties "will end up going to one of our sites first."
How Facebook users will react to the broader disclosure of profile information on search engines is unclear, since most may not be aware of the expanded listings, which could take weeks or longer to be indexed by search engines.
When Facebook first opened up profiles to public search listings last year, a small proportion of users changed their privacy settings to block dissemination of their data, according to Inside Facebook's Smith. But 360i's Berkowitz suggested that members who "fan" a brand on Facebook have a limited expectation of privacy.
"When someone becomes a fan of a Page, it's a pretty explicit action you're taking, and it's pretty clear it's going to show up elsewhere on Facebook--so most users are going to welcome it, or at the very least not care," he said.