As if the tentacles of social networks hadn’t already explored every nook and cranny of our lives, Facebook is now looking to reach out across the entire web. It has designed a new ‘Like’ button, which can be embedded into any website, allowing visitors to signal their approval. No ‘Dislike’ button is planned, however – a disappointment to some, but no doubt a relief to the Cameron Girls and ‘the man they call DC’.
Facebook unveiled its latest Google-bashing innovation at its F8 conference in San Francisco, and while it’s not entirely new – Digg and Stumbleupon do similar things, and Facebook already has a ‘Share’ button – those alternatives could soon look like flotsam bobbing around in a Facebook-shaped online ocean.
Clicking the ‘Like’ button will automatically place a notification and link on the user’s Facebook profile page, which gives it the twin benefits of being dead easy to do and linking into the site that is fast becoming the world’s homepage of choice.
However, Facebook has had to deny claims that the company would use the button to track user behaviour and provide targeted advertising. That won’t have helped its status as the bête noire of privacy campaigners, especially after CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s rather gutsy recent proclamation that users no longer expect privacy as the norm.
Despite the denial, we can’t imagine Facebook abstaining from using this information commercially for long. The site seems to change its privacy settings like most people change their socks, and an understanding of users’ habits and preferences will be a very valuable insight as targeted advertising explodes.
The ‘Like’ button should, in theory, act as a vehicle for friends’ recommendations – a kind of virtual word-of-mouth. As a result, we might be drawn to content we wouldn’t have thought of before, and that doesn’t just mean videos of piano-playing cats. Adding the ‘Like’ button to a site is a free marketing opportunity if nothing else.
It should also overcome one of Google’s main weaknesses – its unthinking adherence to popularity as the main definition of relevance, which means that searchers get sent back to the same sites again and again. Right now, a small number of sites are internet ‘hubs’ for huge amounts of traffic, while a long tail gets very little traffic at all. Obviously that long tail is mostly dross, but who knows how many gems might be going undiscovered?
If the ‘Like’ button can reach a tipping point – and given its simplicity it is hard to see websites or users resisting it – it might signal a significant change in browsing habits. It won’t replace search entirely, but it might bring a bit of variety into our online lives, as well as some healthy competition for Google. Let’s just hope we’re not being watched too closely while we enjoy it.
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