Posted in: facebook, linkedin, peekyou, social networking, spock, wink

Facebook Public Search Profiles and the Battle Between Users and Machines

Like a lot of other web pundits, I was intrigued by Facebook’s recent announcement that they will make very limited profile information publicly available via major search engines. I think this makes sense, especially as the people search market is continuing to heat up with PeekYou, Spock, Wink, and others.

Before I get too far into my limited comments, I should point out that I have friends who work at Spock and think they’re doing some really interesting stuff. Now that I have my disclaimer out of the way, just a few observations.

Observation #1: This has to be the first step in making Facebook profile information more public – otherwise it’s really boring. Unlike the launch of the NewsFeed, which was met with some temporary backlash from users given the level of information it exposed, Facebook seems to be taking a much more conservative approach in rolling this feature out. Over time I expect them to allow users to expose more of this information over time – you can already place a Facebook badge on your blog or personal website. Over time I can see them expanding this functionality to allow users to include the networks to which they belong, groups to which they belong, and other things of general interest to their public profiles.

Observation #2: Aside from boosting page views for Facebook (and I don’t think they really need the bump), the bigger issue is that public profiles do two important things. One, they can be indexed and hence the content appears in search results. More interesting, however, is that public profiles (especially if they have static URLs which can be shared) allow users to have a public profile or summary of themselves to which they can point people who are looking for them on the web. This is one of the nice things about LinkedIn public profiles – it’s a handy thing to include in a sig or on a blog for people who want to find out who you are without combing through Google search results pages and trying to assemble the picture themselves.

The real driver here is that public indexing makes it easier to find and add people as friends in Facebook while you’re using your favorite search engine. Done properly, this could be a pretty attractive, low-cost registered user acquisition vehicle for Facebook. I bet Facebook spends a lot more time worrying about how to boost registered/active users than it does trying to boost pageviews. This feels to me to be driven by user acquisition opportunities, not a pageview bump.

At the end of the day, what’s emerging is a battle between machine-created (people who will index the information about you and present it in a summarized fashion) and user-created profiles. And like most battles, it’s not clear that the outcome will be a binary outcome in which one dominates. For people who want to make more information about themselves public, Facebook is going to give them more tools. For those who prefer to let the web do the work, they’ll have tools that allow that to happen as well. This will be interesting to watch.

Another question I have is whether the value for a machine-generated and user-created public profile is materially different. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet but would love any comments or thoughts.