“Today, the Web exists as a series of unstructured links between pages.” – Mark Zuckerberg
If you haven’t heard about Facebook’s ambitious “social graph,” this is a good blog post for you to read. It will help you understand exactly why Facebook (which recently passed eBay to become the world’s third largest Internet company, with a value of over $30 billion) is so powerful. This post is an analysis about what Facebook’s Open Graph means for you, both as a Facebook user, and as a marketer.
Facebook’s Open Graph has already changed the way people surf the Internet. Make no mistake: Facebook’s new announcements are huge. Without further introduction, here are the eight things you need to know about what Facebook is doing right now:
1. What is Facebook up to? The “Open Graph” is Facebook’s attempt to pull in all the important websites on the Internet and place them under a Facebook umbrella. When the Facebook CEO said that “Today the Web exists as a series of unstructured links between pages” his point was that very shortly things will not be unstructured. Facebook wants to be the structure that connects the links between pages on the Internet. Let that sink in for a minute. It helps to think about the difference between this approach and the approach taken by Google. Both Facebook and Google want to understand the Internet. But Google looks at the Internet from the outside and tries to decode what’s going on. Facebook is trying to impose order on the Internet, so that it can be the only company to have a view of what’s going on under the tent.
2. How does the Open Graph work? Facebook has made it really easy for any website in the world to add Facebook’s “social features,” and by adding the social features, each website will make itself a part of Facebook’s Open Graph. This means that an e-commerce website that sells funny t-shirts can add a “like” button next to each t-shirt design. As you browse the t-shirts and “like” different products, your Facebook news feed will be updated back on Facebook for all your friends to see. The e-commerce website benefits because all your friends will see two things: (a) a link back to an article of merchandise, and (b) the fact that a friend of theirs “likes” that merchandise. Facebook benefits because they see and analyze how their 400 million members are behaving on the Internet. That’s the graph. Instead of hopping from one website to another anonymously, Facebook sees it all, and each time you register an opinion, Facebook has a new data point. But that’s not all.
3. What else will Facebook do with the Open Graph? It will allow any website in the world to give you a “custom experience.” You’ll see what products the Facebook relevancy engine thinks you’ll like most. The Washington Post was one of the earliest adopters of the Open Graph. You don’t need to be logged in anywhere other than at Facebook, and then you see personalized “social” content on the Washington Post’s website. For example, when I went to the Washington Post today, I saw a little box that told me which of my friends had commented or “liked” certain articles, and I also saw other content that was promoted by people outside of my network. This is really interesting (especially for someone like me, who was a former Capitol Hill Press Secretary), because this is a huge step away from human beings determining the news, in favor of computers telling us what to read. Granted, the computers are telling us what to read based on actions taken by humans, but it is still a major shift away from the days when the Editor-in-Chief of a major newspaper would determine what made the front page. Now, the machine chooses. As the Washington Post says about this new development, “Even when you’re…at www.washingtonpost.com, you are essentially on Facebook.”
4. Does all of this mean that Facebook is becoming more important than Google? No. Facebook is going to be the most important “internal” marketing factor for almost all websites. You won’t be able to design a website visually without thinking about Facebook. But Google will still be the most important “external” factor in designing and marketing websites. You will still need to design your website’s architecture (all the hidden, mostly non-visual elements of a website) with Google in mind. In other words, the art of making sure your website appears in Google searches will still be important, but the art will get simpler, due to the fact that great content will have a better chance of rising to the top by means of Facebook optimization, even if a website is hindered by poor Google optimization.
5. So why is all of this scary? Because change is scary. The status quo is that you surf the web anonymously, because no website talks to one another right now. (For example, even though I personally own more than one website, I can’t tell you exactly how much of my traffic is identical, because user analytic data generally dies when it goes from server to server. So if you read my blog, and then you visit my startup, I will only know that there was a visitor on each website. I can’t tell that it was the same visitor. Facebook’s knowledge about your Internet browsing behavior is going to be mind-boggling, and it won’t be anonymous. Facebook will be able to know not only that visitor X visited a website, but that visitor X is named Will Marlow. I don’t mean to be a scaremonger, but Facebook is going to realize the dream of mapping out a massive “network of influence” across the Web, and that’s a topic that needs its own blog post.
6. How important is “sharing”? A lot of these controversial changes boil down to this: Facebook wants to know what items on the Internet are “sharable.” So how important is sharing? Answer: very important. On Facebook alone, the 400 million Facebook users shared over 25 billion things last month. Facebook’s dream is to allow anyone to share anything across its servers, regardless of what website you’re on. This gives Facebook data on which items are more important than others, based on how the item was shared and how many people shared it.
7. What else is Facebook up to? Facebook is allowing a toolbar to be added to ANY website anywhere in the world, that will contain virtually 100% of Facebook’s functionality to that site. For example, if you visit your local jewelry store’s website, you can also have a “Facebook chat” with someone using the Facebook chat system. Again, the upside to the e-commerce site is that all of a sudden, their website has become way more interesting and compelling courtesy of Facebook, and the upside to Facebook is that it will know what its members are doing on all of the world’s e-commerce websites.
8. Why will Facebook succeed? Because they are making things easy. Because they are enormous, and they are growing faster than ever. Because the value that they deliver to every website (literally, every website that I can think of) is too compelling. It will be impossible for websites to resist Facebook’s Open Graph. My guess is that almost all the big websites, and many of the small ones (you don’t need an IT staff to get going) will join before 2011, if not before the start of May.
So what’s the bottom line? All of this is a little scary, but I’m also excited by the thought of making the Internet more social. As you can see, there’s already a Facebook “like” button at the bottom of this post. I hope that this early look at Facebook’s plans was helpful.
Will Marlow is a CiV Digital alum, and the Director of Communications for LogiXML, a leading business intelligence firm. He is also the co-founder of the startup, AlumniFidelity, which helps schools and charities conduct Web 2.0 fundraising campaigns.
This blog post was originally published at WillMarlow.com.