The f8 Preview: How Facebook Plans to Take Over the Web

Mark Zuckerberg @ SXSW 2008 by Deney Terreio via Flickr

Facebook’s third f8 developer conference kicks off tomorrow in San Francisco and online, with the social networking company likely to announce what is essentially a game plan to not only socialize the web, but to marginalize the pre-social web. But while such a plan indicates a tussle with fellow upstart Twitter, the real battle is Facebook vs. Google.

And it’s a battle that, armed with its game plan and 400 million (and growing) subscribers, Facebook is going to turn into an all-out war. As I wrote last week, the company’s vision of the Internet is one connected to Facebook’s brain via hooks — and four of those hooks are expected to be unveiled at f8:

  • Facebook Connect 2.0 with auto-login features
  • Facebook Presence Bar
  • Share/Like buttons
  • Facebook Location

Log Me In, Baby

The first hook will be a souped-up version of Facebook’s digital identity offering, Facebook Connect, which allows you to sign into a site like Hacker News using your Facebook credentials after you are sent to an additional window asking you to connect your accounts. Later this week, that sign-in form will vanish and be replaced by an auto-login. (This painless sign-in might be the reason Apple is said to be looking to integrate Facebook Connect in its iTunes store.)

Does this remind you of the dreaded and draconian Beacon advertising system, where your actions at commercial web sites were automatically logged into the Facebook system and shared on your feed? Well to me it does, and I sincerely hope the company has taken enough steps to ensure the privacy settings of its subscribers. Facebook’s continuing tweaks to its privacy settings indicate a company extremely nervous about a backlash over privacy. A rival camp that includes search giant Google is offering a more open version of such a log-in method, as Liz reported.

Presence Is Everything

The social networking giant is also said to be pursuing a way to give itself a unique presence on partner web sites, in the form of a toolbar. The New York Time describes it by saying:

Facebook is also planning to offer a toolbar that Web sites will be encouraged to place at the bottom of their pages. The toolbar will build on Facebook Connect, a service the company introduced in 2008, allowing people to use their Facebook identities to log into various sites. The toolbar will be easier for publishers to use and may encourage more users to log in. Facebook engineers were still working on the feature, and it was not clear if it would be introduced at the conference.

Up until now, Facebook has shown up on partner web sites as a widget, but that doesn’t help the company understand its users’ engagement on those sites. Since a toolbar is more portable in that it travels from page to page, it will provide Facebook with further intelligence that it can add to its system. Expect to see Facebook IM and easy sharing to the Facebook social graph be part of this toolbar as well.

About three years ago, I wrote that social networking was nothing more than a feature:

The social networking is simply embedding itself into services, like say MOG or Last.fm. They are not social networks in the classic sense – aka like Bebo or Facebook or MySpace – but they essentially are social networks. They use the technology to enhance online experiences, which are the things we want to be doing. After all, life doesn’t happen, online or off, inside a MySpace page.

Replace MySpace with Facebook and the argument still stands.

Like This

Facebook Connect and the Toolbar can enable the rest of the web to act like a Facebook page, with each social app using Facebook’s familiar “share” and “like” buttons. By hitting the share or like button, you and I are explicitly saying that a certain page meets our approval and thus be relevant to our social circles. This is a much smarter way to organize the web, which means that Facebook can now look at taking a bite out of Google’s search business.

As Liz wrote in earlier this year:

“We want these actions to become possible wherever they’re most natural,” said [Facebook platform engineering head, Mike] Vernal. Soon, using the company’s announced open graph API, users will be able to become a fan of any page on the Internet. The API essentially turns a regular web page into a Facebook page, giving it the ability to collect fans, publish stories to their Facebook stream, and appear in the social networking site’s search results.

That little action could initiate a huge shift. On the one hand, becoming a fan of a web page rather than a Facebook page gives power back to sites so they can host their own experiences instead of sending people to someone else’s URL (aka facebook.com/absolut). On the other, it gives Facebook an immense amount of information about what people like, and could allow the company to reorganize the web via a kind of next generation of Google PageRank — call it “FriendRank.”

Location, Check-in, Location

Facebook's Incredible March (Click to get a bigger version of the graphic

Finally, it is widely expected that Facebook is going to announce some kind of location capability at f8. By adding place tagging, in one fell swoop, they could gain the largest single userbase for updates tagged with location. The check-in behavior popularized by the likes of FourSquare would become more easily usable for its more mainstream audience. This was the approach Twitter announced at its own developer conference last week.

But as users start adding location context to Facebook data, there will be more opportunities to make use of social actions married to geo-location. Aggregating people around location will make it much easier for people to socialize and interact offline. It also opens up the opportunity to go after the lucrative local market, another place to compete directly with Google. Facebook could soon have pages for every local restaurant and hair salon, accompanied by user likes, shares and comments and enabling offline businesses to have closer ties with their users. That would give Yelp a run for their money, too.

So What’s It All About?

As GigaOM friend Pip Coburn, who runs an investment advisory firm, often says, it’s not the data, but what you do with that data — and what you infer from it — that really matters. Facebook is doing precisely that. It knows that the social graph is of no use unless there’s real value in the information it contains.

After all, the social graph exists in the real world. It’s called relationships. By going to dinners, attending bar mitzvahs and sending greeting cards and gifts we add more meaning to those relationships. The online social graph’s real value is derived from relationships not only among individuals but the relationships they have with places, things and activities. Their actions — sharing or liking — place a value on those relationships.

The four “hooks” expected at f8 are part of Facebook’s plan to give the web a deeper semantic structure. Such a social understanding and organization is very different from the way Google organizes information through inferred trust using PageRank.

Facebook isn’t the first company to realize that the only way to beat Google is with this people-centric web approach. About five years ago, when Yahoo still believed in itself, the company proposed an idea for a socially organized web. It even launched a rudimentary version of the service, only to fritter such an opportunity away.

So why is Facebook doing all this? For the money. By optimizing the social graph and using distributed tools, Facebook is hoping to increase user engagement. More time spent interacting with its site and the sites it effectively powers will translate into more money-making opportunities.

Facebook’s combination of audacity and ability is admirable and at the same time, a little scary. To those who view it as the 21st century version of the online ghetto called AOL, you’re underestimating this gang. If Mark Zuckerberg and his troops execute on their plan, the web is going to be a lot different. I believe that Facebook will rival Google’s current domination of the search and online advertising business. These guys are ruthless, unrelenting and singleminded in their quest for success. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/The_f8_Preview_How_Facebook_Plans_to_Take_Over_the_Web]

With additional reporting from Liz Gannes.

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Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future

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Photo of Mark Zuckerberg @ SXSW 2008 courtesy of Flickr user Deney Terreio

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