Originally published on Medium
Advertisements on free services are a necessity. But, Facebook and Google are misusing user intent by turning their activity into implicit endorsements.
Google announced earlier today that it is going to start using Facebook style user endorsements.
These “shared endorsements,” as Google is calling them, leverage any reviews, comments, +1s, follows or stars a user may have given to a business or brand by effectively placing that user’s name, photo and any relevant comment in a personalized advertisement.
Since Facebook has been doing this for a while, I am going to talk about it first. What these services excel at is bundling multiple things together to justify their actions. Facebook has done this with the like button. Most of us have been through the drill. We come across some post from a page, like it, and then our name gets stamped on top of all sponsored posts from that page.
We have an advertisement to show you — but we do not want to call it that. So, because a couple of your friends like this page, we have a post to show you. Lets adapt a real life scenario to see how it can play with sponsored endorsements.
A guy called Elon Musk opens Facebook. He sees a post about this new group called FWD.US — they are doing admirable work in pushing for immigration reform which will allow more talented people to stay on in USA. Life goes on and he forgets about the group. Someone in the group has an epiphany and they think supporting drilling oil wells will help with their immigration agenda. A friend of Musk gets the shock of his life the next day when he goes to Facebook. It says
Elon Musk likes FWD.US
followed by a post about the benefits of drilling for more oil.
If you have been paying attention to news, you would know that this played out differently in real life. In our alternate world, Musk will keep endorsing this group unless someone points out to him what his like is doing.
The problem in this fictional account is that the user intent has been muddled up. When someone likes or +1 a content, they expect to see more content from the creator/similar content in their feed. They are not endorsing the creator of that content for everything else.
Even when the intent is closer to a recommendation as in the case of giving a star rating, this shared endorsement needs to be shown with context. I will give another example of how this can be misused.
The social networking service, Path, had a problem a while back where their app was found to upload users contacts to their servers without explicit user permission and then spam those contacts. Now, an enterprising marketer at Path could have used these shared endorsements to run a campaign digging out good ratings given to the app a long while back for its trailblazing design. A user who rated the Path app highly for its design will not be comfortable with her name being used to promote an app spamming users’ contacts.
When a user goes to a review site, she is aware about looking for context — when was this review, see all other reviews by the reviewer to understand her preferences. The way social endorsements work on Facebook (and Google probably) rob the user of this essential context.
Now, lets deal with another crap used by these companies — “Oh, but you know it is optional. Users can always opt out.” This is what I see on Chrome’s new tab page about shared endorsements.
Yeah, everyone is clicking on the Learn More. Internet users love to see what is new in your Terms of Service when they open their browser.
For computer users conditioned by years of clicking on Next and Submit without bothering to read the life-sucking Terms of Service, most are just going to do an angry click on the Got it button and continue with their lives. Google knows this. Remember that huge arrow on Google’s homepage pointing people to use Google+ or the bazillion other prompts. They did not do a simple announcement bar which goes away once we click Got it. Not at all.
I am not against advertising. Most free products fall back on advertising to generate revenue. For years, Google and other ad exchanges have been doing a good work in making advertising profitable for themselves as well as the advertisers, without any harm to their users — allowing many great free services to flourish. Lately, companies like Flipboard and Tumblr have been taking this further with a more integrated native advertising.
I really admire how Twitter handles their sponsored posts. You see a promoted tweet and you know that someone has paid for it. If someone is following that account, they may be interested in it, but they are not endorsing it.
Contrast with Facebook, where the friend’s name comes on top and the sponsored post is a Related Note.
Even then, many twitter users take care to mention that their tweets/retweets are not endorsements to avoid any confusion.
Pretty sure, no Facebook/Google executive has ever seen such a Twitter bio.
I think there is a great value in the overall space of social recommendations. Sites like Yelp, Goodreads, and Zomato have been immensely successful in their verticals. And, people do endorse a great deal of things on the web.
User endorsement on Trello’s homepage
I think that sharing the things we believe are great has a lot of value. Someone else can discover a great new thing or give us new perspective about the thing that we love. This is what I am trying to build for the past year at Allotrop. I want people to be able to collect all their favorite things in a place so that all of us can discover more fabulous things easily. I would love if you can try it out and give me feedback.
Till then, the next time you see a social endorsement ( or whatever other obtuse phrase they come up with ), take it with a grain of salt. Its quite likely your friend only likes it.
EDIT: (Jan 10, 2014) The Verge is reporting that Facebook is going to remove these sponsored ad units as of April 2014. It says:
Facebook is likely happy to finally remove the stories from its site — a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2011, not long after Sponsored Stories launched. Last August, Facebook agreed to a $20 million settlement. That’s not a lot of money by Facebook’s standards, but the ads and resulting lawsuit no doubt damaged the company’s reputation in the public eye.
Hope this serves as a warning for other companies to not misuse user intent for advertising.