Google “Facebook Likes” and you’ll be inundated with a flood of sites and services that promise to deliver that very thing. They don’t mince words in their promotion, flat out saying, you give us money we give you forced or faked human (or “human”) approval. Prices vary: FB Supplier sells 500 photo Likes for $29. Social Buzzer offers 1,000 Likes for $34.90. BuyFacebook-Likes.org (the .org qualifier being entirely necessary as to point out the uselessness of that label) price is 1,000 Website Facebook Likes for $39. It goes on and on and on and on and on.
And none of it is surprising. Back in February, Facebook began making its marketing strategy crystal clear: Likes equal ads. The platform was going to convert the simple, innocent, non-committal act of hitting the Like button into meaning something about users and their relationships with brands.
Before we go much further, a short history of the Like button is deserved. Originally, it wasn’t even to be – it was going to be the Awesome button. The idea of the Awesome button was the result of a 2007 Facebook hackathon, which eventually evolved into “Like” and was officially introduced in 2009.
Eventually, Like replaced the “Become a Fan” feature altogether. And it’s become a popular one: While Facebook won’t reveal Like button statistics, when it was first made available, 50,000 Websites installed it within the first day, and that climbed to 100,000 sites within its opening month. By 2010, it’d had been implemented into some two million sites, and the feedback was unending praise: Some media sites reported 300 percent increases in referral traffic. So you can only imagine how much its presence has increased since.
In fact, you don’t have to imagine. It’s hard to even name a site you can’t Like. Let’s face it: The Like button is a fundamental piece of the Internet’s tapestry.
But it isn’t without controversy. Back in 2010, Facebook was hit with a lawsuit alleging that the Like button was using minors’ Internet activity for commercial gain. Since then, the company has faced an uphill battle trying to appease the courts while simultaneously being able to keep doing exactly what it’s doing. Concessions like trying to put in plainer language that a Like is essentially a vote for a brand has been about as much movement as the social site has made, though it’s also spent time with the FTC making a defense for the Like button and the customized experience it offers users.
Clearly, the Like is worth fighting for, and Facebook knows it. But not only does the network have to fight the Powers that Be, it also has to battle with the monster it created — spam tactics, like Likejacking and fraudulent Likes. Last week the company announced it would start removing business page Likes that were put there by fake or hijacked accounts. Facebook tried to downplay what effect this could have, saying that a typical page will only lose one percent of its Likes, which doesn’t really reveal all that much since there isn’t such a thing as a “typical page” given the huge range in Likes. Some have millions, some have tens; pages with high Like numbers could feel the hit far more significantly.
There are two interesting things to take away from all this. The first is how businesses are reacting, which, to summarize, is not well. A handful are frustrated with their declining Like numbers, and rightfully so — Facebook made this metric important, then brands figured out how to work that system, and now the rules have changed. And it’s not something that just tiny, spammy companies have been doing: Buying Facebook Likes is pretty old hat at this point. Still, those who are protesting the announcement are suffering from their own hubris. You can only defend spamming so much.
But what’s more interesting is that Facebook isn’t acting like Facebook — in fact, it’s acting like Google. Part of the reason buying Facebook Likes has been such a blatant, easy, care-free process is because Facebook’s network is hugely important, yet it isn’t confined by hard, set lines… like, say, a search algorithm is. Anyone who’s even minutely affected by Web traffic has felt the wrath of a Google search algorithm update; the always-iterating engine’s every tiny tweak greatly affects our business. And Google has always defended its algorithm as a science, a machine, a crucial cog in finding the most correct data. Facebook, on the other hand, has traditionally been about feelings, bias, opinions, and… well, likes, and for that matter, dislikes. But these days, it can’t be that amorphous, not when big advertising and marketing dollars are involved. If you had to say what Facebook’s “thing” was, that thing would legitimacy: It made a name for itself as the proprietar of the real online identity, and this is what has made it worth so much. The near-elimination of anonymity could have been seen as a slight, but the network made that a feature, a selling point — and it worked. So anything that challenges that, in the wake of things like stock prices and shareholders, has got to go. To do that, Facebook is taking a page out of Google’s book by rooting out the fakers.
Even some of the language Facebook is using sounds like what we hear about SEO tactics. Facebook says that businesses will actually benefit from this because Likes from fraudulent sources aren’t all that helpful: The site takes into account how active a business page’s followers are, so if you bought 10K Likes from spam profiles, then they arguably shouldn’t be successfully circulating your content. That idea sounds a lot like whenever Google issues a search algorithm update and reminds everyone that writing for humans instead of trying to learn its secret sauce is best practice.
We’ve taken yet another step away from SEO and into the next generation of Internet optimization. The search engine certainly isn’t going anywhere, but now it’s not the only one making rules the rest of us have to abide by.