Facebook’s SEO Facelift

Originally published in MediaPost’s Search Insider

Calling all spiders! Facebook wants its profiles to be part of your Web.

Facebook will soon open up its 39 million profile pages to give them
more visibility in search engines. As Danny Sullivan points out at Search Engine Land, search engines already index Facebook profiles — though only about 25,000 are indexed, according to Amit Agarwal;
that’s 0.064% of all profiles. To date, profile indexing has largely
been on an opt-in basis, but Facebook is now switching to an opt-out
model.

Facebook isn’t exposing entire profiles to search engines. Instead,
Facebook creates “public search listings” based on the profiles.
Facebook tells members, “Your public search listing consists of your
name and the thumbnail version of your profile picture. This listing
will be shown to people who search for your name when they are not
logged in to Facebook.” The listing also includes links for Facebook
users to send you messages, view your friends, poke you, or add you to
their friend lists. Facebook notes that while search preferences within
Facebook are updated automatically, the engines will be slower to act
on any changes.

Does this herald some new era of Facebook SEO? Will Facebook members
revolt en masse and join social networks for the Amish? Will Britney
ever live down her MTV Video Music Awards performance? We’ll answer
most of those questions below.

Facebook sets the standard for user privacy controls.
While it’s fun to write about controversy, such as the idea that
Facebook users will rebel against the site’s newfound search engine
optimization, the press has hardly covered the many privacy controls
Facebook has in place.

First, Facebook members can control who can find their profiles
within the site – friends, people in shared networks, or everyone. Only
if “everyone” is selected will Facebook provide members with the option
of allowing others to see their public search listings. If that option
is checked, members can then allow public listings to be indexed by
search engines. If you’re on Facebook, this is all available under the
Privacy Settings for Search; if you’re not, you can find screen shots on my blog.

This granular level of control is a rare treat for Facebook’s
members. By contrast, the privacy controls for Orkut, Google’s social
network, only allow members to control whether their profile changes
are visible to friends and whether friends can see who visits each
others’ homepages. MySpace is hardly better, allowing members to
control who views their birthday,  who views their profile (such as if
it’s restricted to members 18 and older, which anyone can lie about),
and blocking individual users. Yahoo 360 offers basic controls for who
can view members’ profiles and how profiles appear.

The one major network that’s on par with Facebook here is LinkedIn,
which lets users control specifically which profile sections to include
on their Public Profile; I can have mine,
for instance, show details about my career history while hiding my
personal interests. Members can even choose their Public Profile URL —
I chose dberkowitz but could just as easily have chosen something like
marketingmaven (sorry, that one’s taken). Expect social networks to
offer more controls along the lines of what Facebook and LinkedIn
provide to bolster the trust of their members.

We finally move beyond News Feed Optimization (NFO).
Some bloggers have taken a stab at describing how to optimize listings
for Facebook news feeds, the updates that every Facebook user sees as
their homepage when logging in. Justin Smith’s elaborate write-up on NFO
on Inside Facebook is much more about making content as viral as
possible on Facebook, rather than optimizing it any particular way.
It’s fun to try to coin new terms, but this is a buzzword without any
substance behind it.

The attention on search will put more pressure on Facebook to improve its internal search engine.
If you know exactly what you’re looking for on Facebook, you can
probably find it through its search engine. Yet when you’re trying to
sort search results by, say, the alumni from your alma mater who joined
Facebook most recently or the groups with the most members, you’ll have
a tough time sifting through the pages of results. Interestingly, if
the search functionality improves, then there may well be some
opportunities for optimizing listings for Facebook’s search results —
yet that would be a stretch, and any optimizing should require a matter
of minutes, rather than full-time resources.

Competition intensifies at people search sites.
Wink, Spock, ZoomInfo, and other people search engines are trying to
capitalize on one of the ultimate “long tail” search categories. The
competition includes social networks like MySpace and LinkedIn, white
pages directories, and, in several ways, the major engines themselves.
As social networks are used more as people search engines (discussed in
my previous column
), all the sites will keep focusing more on SEO to try to outrank each
other. The goal for these sites is to gain a couple clicks monthly on
each of millions of listings, though certain sites like Spock can
capitalize on mass reach terms like celebrity searches (Spock fall
short with Britney,
however, as there were no references or photos from her VMA implosion a
day after the event, and a day before this column’s publication).

In opening its profile listings more broadly to search engines,
Facebook sets an example for how communities should let members set
their own preferences. Even that’s not foolproof, as most people are
now just starting to understand the importance of personal reputation
management online, and even some of those who understand it don’t care
enough about it. Facebook has struck that perfect balance of respecting
its members while refraining from trying to protect them from
themselves.