Facebook Versus Google: Now It's a Button War

Like and Send will beat +1. Will they also give Facebook control over our social identity?

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Gone are the days when the Web was just for browsing. You don’t just read a Web page anymore. You e-mail it. You “like” it. You comment on it. You recommend it. You log in to it. You tweet it. And most sites—IEEE Spectrum’s own included—also let you share an article via Reddit, Slashdot, Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious, and of course, Facebook—and by the way, thank you if you’ve been sharing these podcasts in any of these myriad ways.

Just when you thought the Web couldn’t take one more button, two more are being added. Last month, Facebook rolled out its “Send” button. Meanwhile, Google says it’s soon going to release its “+1” button—comparable to Facebook’s “Like” button—to website developers so that they can install them on their sites. In a recent posting, Danny Sullivan, the editor in chief of the website Search Engine Land, wrote:

“When Facebook rolled out its Send button last week, I laughed. I even mocked on Twitter that Facebook wouldn’t be happy until our pages were full of buttons. But the Send button, as well as integrating other aspects of Facebook into websites, does make a lot of sense. In fact, it’s beginning to make so much sense I’ve begun to wonder if Facebook has won the battle to be the one true log-in.”

So what exactly do all these buttons do for Facebook and Google? And more importantly, what do they do for us? My guest today is Danny Sullivan. He’s been covering search engines, and now social networks, since 1995. Danny, welcome to the podcast.

Danny Sullivan: Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: Let’s start with the new Facebook Send button. How is it different and hopefully better than the “e-mail this story” buttons we’ve been using for years?

Danny Sullivan: Well, I suppose they might say it’s a little bit easier. If you’re going to send it, it will go out to the Facebook people that you know. And it should show up in their e-mail boxes, and perhaps they may not ignore it the way that some people may have sort of blocked tracked e-mail boxes. It can also do both things: You can send to your Facebook friends, and you can also send to anybody’s e-mail address that you have as well. I don’t really know, though, that that makes it so much better; I just thought it was interesting, especially that the lowly “Send to somebody” button had been sort of colonized by Facebook and taken over by them and being used in that way.

Steven Cherry: Fair enough. Let’s get to your digital double take. Does Facebook’s Send button make sense? I mean, what does Facebook get out of this?

Danny Sullivan: Well, perhaps the biggest thing is that they continue to train people that Facebook is a way that they should be communicating information. And that locks you further into Facebook, and they understand more about what people like, what you like, the popular content that’s out there, and it further enables their potential advertising platform. It also helps tie them more closely back in with publishers. It allows them to say to publishers, “Use these buttons and you’ll see some of the rewards, because we’ll end up sending you more people back out of the Facebook platform.”

Steven Cherry: Yeah, maybe go into that, because that was my next question: What are these sites getting out of it? And then finally, also, what are we who visit these sites getting out of it?

Danny Sullivan: The sites are hoping that they are going to get more traffic from Facebook. Facebook has more than 600 million people who use it; it’s continued to climb in the amount of time people spend on the site. For some people they’re spending hours a day on it, and it may be their form of a personal newspaper in some ways. So if you can become visible on Facebook, it’s an important new marketing channel for you in the way of getting the word out. Facebook’s algorithm, EdgeRank, is a system of showing people when they log in to Facebook content based on what their friends like or what they like. And so if you can get a bunch of people liking your content, that goes out into then influencing those people’s friends and perhaps other friends and other friends beyond that. And so the publishers are installing these buttons and other social plug-ins hoping to build up their reputation on Facebook and get the reputation spread around so that people will in turn come from Facebook into them.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, let’s get to Google. I mean, they’re playing catch-up here—the +1 seems to be a bit like the Like button, and Facebook’s already moving on beyond that. But I have to say, I’m a little puzzled—even though the +1 button hasn’t rolled out yet—just by the descriptions of it. They say that +1 is going to tell my friends what I like, but for that to be true, Google has to know who my friends are. Does Google know who my friends are?

Danny Sullivan: Kind of [laughs]. Actually, there’s two things to it: Google has to know who your friends are, and it has to have a way to show your friends what you like. It has the former; it doesn’t have the latter yet. So Google has a variety of ways of knowing who your friends are. For example, you can link up your Google account to your Twitter account. and then it can tell, you know, all your Twitter friends. It can also infer or guess at some connections; it can go out and see, for example, what your Facebook page is, and your Facebook page will list some of your friends. So if you’ve linked your Facebook page up to Google, it can potentially figure out some of your friends because that’s public information as well. So there are ways for it to figure out your network, both from the stuff that you may purposely do and from stuff that it can assume or connections it can see out on the Web if it wants to. The bigger challenge is really, I think, what do you do with it? I mean, right now, if the +1” button magically appeared to go on everybody’s websites, as we’re expecting it to happen within a few weeks—if you were to push it, I mean, you could even do this right now; you’ve got the +1 button on the Google site, so if you push it, who sees that? Well, anybody that knows to go to your page in Google—that’s your profile page—and knows to also look on a special tab that shows everything you’ve +1’ed, and they only see that if you’ve enabled that tab. That’s a lot of steps that prevent anybody from actually seeing this, whereas in Facebook if you like something, that’s going to immediately go out into your wall, and that in turn may flow out to a lot of your friends’ feeds that they’re used to checking in on. So what Google really needs to be effective is to have another means for what you share to flow out to your social network. And that aspect we haven’t seen yet.

Steven Cherry: Beyond that, just this idea of my network as Google understands it just seems very different from my friends network on Facebook. I mean, I might follow on Twitter people that I violently disagree with just to see what they’re saying and so forth, but I’m certainly not interested in what they like.

Danny Sullivan: Actually, I would argue that you are interested in what they like because you’re following them, and you’re doing that because you are expressing some kind of an interest in what they’re doing or what they may be sharing. And when they like something on Facebook, that’s actually a bad form; they may not actually like it, and sometimes you get people who are really trying to share stuff regardless of whether they agree with it or not. And I think the same thing could happen with a Google network; you know, you may have people that you want to keep up on that are sharing information that’s of interest to you. Now, having said that, one of the things that Facebook did with their groups—and perhaps Google may do as it goes forward—is allowing you to better segment your friends. You may be especially interested in the things that your family is sharing, and you may occasionally want to keep up with people who perhaps have political views opposed to you, or maybe you don’t really care what they have to say unless it’s something superpowerful, but you could segment those sorts of things with Facebook. And one of the things that Facebook especially already does is it tries to understand the people that you really are friends with. You know, if you go to somebody’s page or if you click on a link and you say you like something that they share and it says, “Aha! You must really have a closer connection with this person. I will show you more stuff from them.”

Steven Cherry: So I guess social scientists call this, you know, the social graph—the sort of mapping out of an individual’s sort of social network. And it sounds to me like it’s going to get more and more granular, and Facebook and maybe Google are going to know more and more about us. And they will be able to distinguish between the people that we truly like and the people that we merely respect and the people that we hate and respect, and so on and so forth.

Danny Sullivan: Yeah, it may be harder for them to figure out the “hates” and “truly likes” type of thing; it’s perhaps easier for them to figure out who we’re most engaged with. Because I could, and do, for example, sometimes on Twitter have a lot of interactions with people that I completely disagree with because we’re arguing a particular point. Although the fact that I’m deciding that they’re worth my time to have that interaction with I suppose might indicate that I like them in some ways, but perhaps down the line they’ll be able to figure out, you know, these are the people that you really do like, these are the people you really hate, these are the people you never interact with but you just want them to think you’re friends with. But I think it’s more that you’re going to be seeing them figure out the people that you engage with the most, and then beyond that, the kinds of content that you engage about. For example, it may be that with your family you’re constantly clicking on photo albums and personal kind of material, to whereas with some coworkers you’re constantly clicking that you like articles that they’re showing, and then that may prompt a smart system to say, “Okay, from this group of people he only seems to like to get photos, so show them more photos.” And in fact we find that when this happens, these are really more “friends” kind of people; we’ll kind of classify them that way. And then from these other people he seems to like articles being shared, and that’s more of a “coworker-follower” type of thing, so we’ll do that in another way.

Steven Cherry: There’s one other change that Facebook introduced recently, and that has to do with the way that people make comments on websites like Spectrum’s website. Maybe you could just tell us how that works.

Danny Sullivan: Well, they basically let sites have commenting run through Facebook. So, you know, a lot of websites have comments. It can be a pain having comments because you have to moderate; some systems don’t require people to register, so you get a lot of junk comments and so on. Facebook basically said, “Look, you know what, use our system. Anyone with a Facebook account can then log in, and lots of people already have the account, so they can leave a comment; it will appear on your website, and problem solved.” And then beyond that, the comments that they’re doing will also get shared out on Facebook with—if they want—with people that they know, and that may in turn show that these people are very engaged with your website, and therefore, potentially it will bring you more people from Facebook, because their comment gets flowed out to their friends and so on.

Steven Cherry: So maybe we can get back to the question that we started with. There have been a lot of attempts to devise a single sign-on for the Web, you know,  so I don’t have to do things like register at every newspaper and online store. So has Facebook actually won the battle to be the one true log-on?

Danny Sullivan: I wouldn’t say it’s won. It’s certainly gaining a lot more acceptance, though. I don’t know that it will ever win; it would be hard to imagine logging into your Google account, for example, with a Facebook account. You probably won’t sign into your bank with your Facebook account; there will be a number of places that I think just having a Facebook account won’t cut it. But I think they are likely to be winning the—I want to call it the “no-brainer log-in,” but that’s not necessarily it—but they’re gaining in the casual log-in situation. That is a website that would like to have some kind of a registration system to let you do certain things, and it’s an easy option for them to implement. You can put this up, you’ve got the bribe of getting Facebook, and it just may not be worth it for them to go through and say, “Ah, right. Now I want to make sure this is enabled so that it also works with Twitter and it also works with Open ID so that I can store, you know, Google or Yahoo or whatever.” It seems like everybody already has a Facebook account, so they may go with it that way.

Steven Cherry: So this seems like the classic trade-off that we often see with the Web and I guess elsewhere, trading privacy and control for convenience. Are we ceding to Facebook something that we’re going to, you know, regret?

Danny Sullivan: Possibly. I mean, you know, if you’re logging into all these websites with your Facebook log-in, that is information that’s going to get shared back with Facebook; it does mean that you may have to be constantly going back to figure out what is it that Facebook today has decided that is going to be public or not public. It can be confusing when they’ve made these changes in the past; sites can suddenly start instant personalizing stuff when you don’t necessarily expect it. So, yeah, I think people do need to think about whether or not they really do want to log in to these sites and what they’re expecting to get from it, and it may depend on the site. If you just want to comment on some website, and all you’re doing is leaving a comment, it may not cause you any second thoughts to do that. If you wanted to use your Facebook log-in on some merchant website, and you may not want the world to necessarily know the things that you’re buying for whatever reasons, then maybe you don’t want to be using it and have that sort of thing blocked and have another option. And I think it’s also why a site owner, or publisher, really may have to think about whether or not they want to go all in on Facebook, because there are still going to be some people who are going to be like, “I really don’t want that option. I would prefer to have something else; I just don’t want to trust my Facebook log-in with this situation for whatever reason.”

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks a lot, Danny. This really cleared up a lot for me—hopefully for our listeners, too.

Danny Sullivan: Excellent. Well, I’m glad you had me on, and I hope it helps.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan about how Facebook may be coming to own our online identities—one Like button at a time. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 23 May 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.