Previously, I’ve written about the implications of Facebook’s closed networks for Google. Google’s web crawler can’t access Facebook Profile’s that are private (which is most of them). That means that tools like Google Search and Buzz can’t index these pages and can’t display their content in results. This wouldn’t matter too much if Facebook were small but it now has 400 million users and is still growing quickly. That’s hundreds of millions of profile pages that Google can’t access and many more status updates each year that Buzz can’t display.
Facebook realize that they must become more open. In the latest series of changes to Facebook, you’ll notice that the ‘Logout’ function is no longer prominent in the top right hand corner of the page. It’s now hidden within the account menu. My guess is that this change was made in the hope that users stay logged in to Facebook. The result being that when you browse the web, your Facebook account comes with you. When you’re browsing a third party site that makes use of Facebook Connect (and soon Open Graph), the site administrator knows who you are. You’re also able to share content back to Facebook streams very easily.
Facebook must carefully balance their transition to openness for two reasons. Firstly, there’s an uproar among users every time Facebook meddles with their privacy settings so they have to be careful to protect users. Secondly, and more importantly, as Facebook becomes more open, they let go of a little more of their competitive advantage over Google. Openness allows Google to crawl the site and display contents in the search results. Facebook Fan Pages (maintained by organizations rather than individuals) are inherently open to the public rather than protected behind secure networks. Google can display these pages in search results and they typically rank quite highly due to Facebook’s heavy vollume of traffic. Google Buzz can display status updates from these pages. Mashable wrote an article explaining this well.
This fine dance between openness and privacy is going to be fascinating to witness.