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Summary:

A team of developers led by Facebook’s Blake Ross has launched a browser plugin called “Don’t be evil” they claim presents Google’s search more fairly — but is this a war Facebook can win, or just a chance to make cheap PR points against Google?

When Google launched its new social search features earlier this month, with results from Google+ prominently displayed, Twitter was quick to criticize the company for giving its own network preferential treatment, but there was no response from Facebook. Now, the giant social network is making itself heard in a different way: director of product Blake Ross and a small team have launched a browser plugin called “Don’t be evil” they claim presents Google’s search more fairly, and they are publicizing it through a site called “Focus on the user.” It seems the battle is on to prove who is more open — but is this a war that Facebook can win, or just a chance to score some cheap PR points against Google?

Google calls its new feature “Search plus Your World,” but as we and others noted at the time of its launch, the results that show up for most users (the service is enabled by default) consist primarily of Google+ content, including status updates, photos and profile pages. Even when a user isn’t logged in to Google, the promotional section of the search page shows Google+ recommendations — and when a user is logged in, results appear to favor pages from Google’s network, even when someone uses a term that implies they are looking for a Twitter profile.

Google says it doesn’t favor its own results, but is that true?

Google chairman Eric Schmidt has said the company doesn’t favor its own social network in results, and it would be more than happy to display results from Twitter and Facebook, but hasn’t been able to get proper access to their data (a deal with Twitter expired late last year and wasn’t renewed). But Sullivan noted Google’s results are full of information from Twitter that has come through a standard web-crawl, and Google seems to be deliberately not showing them as prominently.

This is the central point Blake Ross and his team of programmers — some of whom work for Myspace and Twitter — say they are trying to make with their plugin. As Ross explained to John Battelle of Federated Media, the browser “bookmarklet” allows a user to rearrange their search results to show what Facebook says is a more objective view of the web, instead of one that favors Google+ content. But the plugin doesn’t just remove Google+ results: instead, Ross says it simply uses the company’s own search algorithm to provide results from multiple networks (such as Twitter and Facebook) by looking at how that content is ranked without the “Search plus Your World” setting enabled:

So that’s what our “bookmarklet” does. It looks at the three places where Google only shows Google+ results and then automatically googles Google to see if Google finds a result more relevant than Google+.

The three places the site is referring to are the search results themselves, the promotional box on the right-hand side often reserved for ads, and the “suggested search” or auto-complete text that comes up when you start typing in the search field. As described in a FAQ at the “Focus on the User” site and in a video demonstration (which is embedded below), the plugin combines a regular unfiltered Google search with some of the search engine’s other features — such as “rich web snippets,” which take images and excerpts from web pages — to present results from multiple networks.

Facebook is playing a dangerous game

If an unknown programmer had released this plugin, it might have seemed like just a good-natured thumb in the eye for Google and its social-search ambitions, but because Ross is the director of product at Facebook (and a former lead developer at Mozilla) — and his team went to the trouble of registering a domain, recording a demo video, etc. for their plugin — makes it clear this is a shot across Google’s bow from a major competitor. But will it accomplish what Facebook hopes it will accomplish?

Most users will probably never install the “Don’t be evil” plugin or bookmarklet, and many may not even see why Google’s new social results are a bad thing. Some Google supporters have argued that the company should be able to promote whatever it wants in its results, and that if users don’t like it they can switch to using Microsoft’s Bing or some other search engine. So why is Facebook bothering? Among other things, the social network is probably hoping to ratchet up the attention federal antitrust regulators are paying to Google’s behavior, since its favoritism of its own services has already become an issue with the Federal Trade Commission.

This skirmish feels a lot like a replay of the last time Google and Facebook locked horns, when Google changed the terms of its API to prevent Facebook users from importing their Gmail contacts automatically, since Facebook didn’t allow users of other services to download their Facebook contact info. At one point, Google even renamed its contact-exporting feature “Trap My Contacts Now” as a way of highlighting what it said was Facebook’s lack of openness. (Facebook later changed its settings so that users can download the email addresses of their social graph, but only if each user gives their permission.)

The reality of this ongoing battle is that both sides have shown they are more than happy to criticize others for being closed or proprietary or otherwise unfair, at the same time they themselves favor their own content or services, lock up their data or otherwise use their market position to strong-arm their competitors. “Don’t be evil” is a knife that cuts in multiple directions, and both Google and Facebook need to be careful about how — and where — they wave it around.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Fabio Venni

  1. You’re quite right. It’s hard to tell which company is more “evil” although I don’t really think either company is actually evil, just dishonest – they pretend to care about there user base when in fact all they care about is selling our eyeballs and analyzing our personal data. No big surprise there

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  2. Say what you will about Google, but I say Frak Facebook, they were douchebags right from the start and wanted everything for nothing and then still sell your ass and personal data down the river to anyone that pays!

    Zuckerberg and his punks are the biggest ‘do evil’ outfit out there! Makes Megaupload look like boy scouts by comparison!

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    1. Really, Ric?

      Do they sell data? Or, do they actually give some of the data that they have on their users away for free?

      Or, more accurately, to they sell access to their audience – like most Internet sites, do by the way? Which is much different than your “sell your ass and personal data down the river to anyone that pays!” scenario.

      Sorry, I’m no fan of Facebook – but, I’m no fan of “half-wits” either.

      Try and keep it together, in a public space! Some fresh air might help too…

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  3. Just because we may not like facebook’s behavior doesn’t change the fact that this shows Google is manipulating its search results to favor its own services rather than to be the most relevant.

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    1. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but seeing as Google is a private company I think they’re entitled to do what they want with their search results. It’s not like they’re the only viable search engine in existence.

      It doesn’t make sense to me that people expect any company to promote a competing service.

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      1. It might be ok for them to do what they like, but is it ok for them to lie about what they are doing? These results directly contradict Eric Schmidt’s claims from last week.

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  4. “Google supporters have argued that the company should be able to promote whatever it wants in its results, and that if users don’t like it they can switch”

    I’ve been interested in the chatter around this.

    There seem to be two conversations going on. One is about whether Google is being unfair or unethical (or illegal), which leads to comments about their actual obligations.

    There other is about the search engine’s reliability and usefulness which has nothing to do with legality, and everything to do with public relations and user satisfaction.

    I don’t know from legal, but I know what I don’t like, and I think I’m allowed to voice that (not matter what Google has or hasn’t claimed, and no matter how miserable Facebook has been to us). It’s odd to see people respond to user feedback with “they don’t owe you nuttin’.”

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    1. I posted a question on tellwut.com – its a survey to see if people feel google is being unfair. you will have to find it under recent questions.

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  5. …. Interesting that most of the discusion seems to be within the framework that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have somehow been given the “right” to represent the “Communities” that have given them value….Based on most of the current events surrounding these companies it does not seem that putting value creating “Communities” first is part of their agenda….Most if not all of the decisions have been about what is good for the “Companies” and in most cased this means that the “Communities” that creates real value will be commoditized and marginalized….

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  6. After Twitter, Facebook did make a mark this way finally! Google Plus is playing with Social media as well as the SEO. But despite all, Linkedin is still mumb on the issue. I am in search of true quotes from Linkedin members with regards to Social exploitation on the Search engine. Do they not wish to promote profiles through Search engines? Facebook in search engine will have only pages to promote, profiles are not that important, the real-times, as seen earlier can be useful at times of calamities or other exciting events in the world, but Linkedin profiles on the Search engine, will help better recruitment facilities through the web.

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  7. I have a long posting on Google Plus in which I argue that the “Focus on the user” tool is just a sneaky way for Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace to get free advertising at the expense of us users. I also argue that if Google added links to Twitter and Facebook profiles analogous to the current links to Google Plus profiles, this would be harmful both to us users and to Google.

    URL below.

    https://plus.google.com/105632069192178483374/posts/Qx9MBZseA99

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