For the past two weeks, I feel like I’ve been witnessing some type of Cuban Missile Crisis going on between Google, Twitter and Facebook. I’d like to suggest some ways that social-nuclear war might be averted.
Beyond Blame, Believing In Cooperation
Let’s set aside blame, because blame isn’t going to move anything forward.
Let’s also assume that all the players can be taken to some degree at their word, that they do indeed want to work together in some ways.
What does everyone want?
The Wants & A Game Changer
Google has wanted its own social graph for some time. By social graph, I mean a way for it to see how people are interconnected, which could potentially improve Google’s search results. Better ways to target ads, new “sticky” content where people spend huge amounts of time are other things it wants, but let’s focus on the search aspects.
Twitter has wanted, well, clearly money along with other non-disclosed things for what is mistakenly assumed to be its most valuable asset, its “firehose” of tweets. What’s really Twitter’s most valuable asset is actually its sharing activity, but I’ll get back to that.
Facebook has wanted, well, I don’t know — maybe to be the best social network out there. Don’t laugh. If Google once had a laser-like focus on being the best search engine out there, Facebook can have the same focus on social. That’s a vision that Facebook probably doesn’t want ruined by Google encroaching on its territory. A vision that, of course, makes Facebook plenty of money by tapping into social actions.
We also now have something new that both Facebook and Twitter say they want — to be better represented in Google’s search results. It’s not as if they haven’t been there. But releasing today’s Don’t Be Evil bookmarklet — which alters the Google’s Search Plus Your World service — was a game changer in these Cold War years between the search and social superpowers.
The Bill Of Social Data Rights
Can everyone get what they want, all succeeding in their own ways, without further banging of virtual shoes in outrage?
I think they can. Or at least, I think there are some ways forward, some common ground that has emerged. I’ll lay these out in what I’ll call a Bill Of Social Data Rights. I’m open to better names, believe me — that name I know has been used for other things than I’m covering. But hopefully you get the point.
1) Public Is Public
If someone posts something public on a social network, that’s public for any search engine to index. It’s not up to Twitter or Facebook or Google+ to decide if Google or Bing get to index it through some special deal. The content of what was written belongs to the person who wrote it. If that person publishes publicly, then search engines can spider what they find.
Posts are, after all, web pages. People who create them can choose to block them from search engines if they want. People can choose to withdraw public posts after they’ve been published and know that, like with any web page, the posts will eventually be dropped from search engines.
Social networks have lots of content. Search engines like Google and Bing could bring them to a halt, if they tried to grab everything without special arrangements. So make the “firehose” arrangements, and make them on behalf of the users, who might actually want to find their own content in the search engines of their choice.
This helps solves, by the way, the concerns that Facebook and Twitter have raised about not being included enough in Google. Much of their content is included. Much more of it could be included, if deal making was set aside in favor of the Public Is Public principle.
2) Profiles Are Meta Data
If someone creates a public profile, certain types of information from that profile should be expressed in an easy, machine-readable format. Any social network should provide the profile’s name, the number of followers, the number of people being followed, as well as a flag to indicate if a profile is somehow verified or trusted. A trusted way to link that profile to other profiles or web sites should be implemented.
Search engines need this type of information, so that they really know who someone is, in order to return search results. That’s true even if the person is using a pseudonym. You still want to know that the pseudonym account that comes up is the right one, not some faker.
Providing meta data abut profiles will help. Search engines won’t have to guess where to scrape for key information such as follower counts, which can be used to tell if an account might be real or not, in the case of celebrities. Cross-linkage can help avoid problems that both Google and the Don’t Be Evil tool have, where Larry Page gets listed with Facebook and Twitter profiles that aren’t really his.
If Facebook and Twitter really want better inclusion in things like “People & Pages” listings at Google, this type of data will help. Similarly, if Bing wants to include Google+ profiles, it could use the information as well.
3) Your Friends Are Yours
If I have friends on one service, I should be able to import those friends in some machine-readable format to another service. That doesn’t mean a list of text names, as Facebook’s tool will kick out for me.
It might mean email addresses, as Facebook will give me for Yahoo or Microsoft but not for Google.
It really means some way that the geniuses at our social networks can concoct, I’m sure, so that if I want to find my Twitter friends at Google+, I can. If I want Path to know a particular Google+ circle of friends I have, I can do that. If Pinterest wants to know my Facebook friends, they are my friends to take — not Facebook’s to decide.
What is there really to fear, by allowing this? Even if I take my 50 friends to a new social network, if that social network is crap, no great victory has been won. Heck, taking the names doesn’t mean any of the 50 will actually follow me over.
4) Social Shares & Social Actions Are Proprietary
The real gem each of the social networks has isn’t our posts, isn’t our profiles, isn’t our friends. It’s knowing what we do, how we interact with our friends, how we interact with content.
That’s where the walls should remain. Facebook and Twitter, for example, have real reasons to fear that handing over streams of data to Google might allow it to better understand how people are acting on their services.
So don’t. Make content public, yes. But find a way to agree that the actions — the number of tweets, the number of likes, whatever — are declared off-limits for use by other search engines. If things like robots.txt and the nofollow attribute can work for search, the social networks can figure out their own mechanisms.
Does everyone get what they really want with this?
Google already has a social graph that’s building in Google+. It really doesn’t need to be worried about getting social shares or actions from the other services — though if they want to offer this, that’s their option. But giving Google the additional information I’ve outlined will allow it to do a better job of exposing content from these other services in search.
Twitter doesn’t get some big payday for its feed, but it’s not getting that now. What it does gain is people who stop complaining they can’t find their own tweets. It gains the chance that with decent meta data, Google will rethink the Google+ification of its search results and return to the idea that search results can be social using anyone’s network. And Twitter’s content gains more exposure, important for a service that more and more talks about itself as being a content play.
Facebook gets even more exposure within Google than it has now. Opening up keeps pressure on Google, as with Twitter, that there can’t just be some Google+ification with the excuse that Google has no choice, because Facebook won’t do a deal. And Facebook potentially avoids the anti-trust critics that almost certainly will come for it in a few years, just as they’ve come for Google now, claiming that Facebook is staying to closed and using its market dominance to keep others out.
I know these proposals may sound naive. Some of what I describe might already exist. But we do need a way forward. Search and social have been colliding, but we don’t need a collision. We need a collusion, and not in the negative sense but a collusion where the users really are being served best by the services they depend on. That can happen, even supporting healthy competition, but without the social superpowers going to war.