Last week, Facebook formally announced that it was making millions of personal profiles accessible to the public via major search engines. As far as I can tell, Facebook members who never intended or expected to be listed this way were suddenly opted-in to Facebook’s new plan. I say "as far as I can tell" because despite several attempts over the past week, Facebook has failed to provide me with any official answers. Below, some of the key questions I put to the service about the profile move and member privacy issues, along with answers as best I can determine on my own.
To reduce the hype factor, practically no private data is being released. Instead, it’s the shift to an opt-out model that I find the real story here. And for more background on the new profile listings, be sure to read my Facebook Opens Profiles To Tap Into Google Traffic article from last week.
1) Are The "Public Search Listings" New, As Facebook Claims?
To explain more, last week on Sept. 5, Facebook blogged about the new public search listings:
Starting today, we are making limited public search listings available to people who are not logged in to Facebook.
That makes the listings seem like something brand new. But they aren’t. My aforementioned Facebook Opens Profiles To Tap Into Google Traffic article documented how Tom Critchlow found he had a public search listing back in July — and one that was showing up in Google. Rae "Sugarrae" Hoffman is an experienced Facebook user who also found that her profile was available and in search engines ages ago.
Why care if the listings aren’t new but just being spun that way? Because many people were not aware that these profiles were already being offered and, importantly, might not have wanted them to be found by search engines. That leads to the next question.
2) Was The Default Privacy Setting Changed To Expose These Listings?
I can’t say definitely, because only Facebook knows how things were (or someone who documented how things were before the announcement was made). However, there are enough clues (including Facebook’s silence on this issue) to suggest that the default settings were either shifted to expose public listings for everyone or the feature, whenever it was enabled, exposed the listings from the outset.
To explain more, via the Privacy Overview page, you can reach the Privacy Settings For Search page. That has a section which looks like this:
See how you can choose to show anyone, including search engines, your public search listing? This is the control panel that Facebook has suggested was a new addition. In reality, the control panel existed several weeks before last week’s announcement.
The screenshot above shows the current default settings. IE, if you sign-up for Facebook right now, the privacy settings are set to expose your public search listing to anyone, including search engines.
How things were matters. If things were set not to expose listings, then Facebook has suddenly opted-in millions of people. If settings always exposed these listings, then Facebook is "coming clean" late in the game. More on both, below.
3) If Privacy Settings Disabled Public Search Listings, Were These Flipped Back To Expose?
Let me go back the three states that the public search listing control panel could have had and the implication of each state.
Expose: This is the current default, where public search listings are created and shown to search engines. I suspect this has always been the default. At some point well prior to last week’s announcement, Facebook created these public search listing pages and added a control panel for users to handle them. Both are known facts. I think the defaults in the control panel were always set to expose these pages, effectively opting-in Facebook members to having their names put into search engines.
If that’s the case, it’s disturbing that weeks later, Facebook finally decides it needs to tell members about this "new" feature. That announcement should have been made when the feature was launched, it seems.
Don’t Expose: It may have been that the settings for members were set to NOT expose these listings, by default. If that was the case (again, we don’t know, as Facebook isn’t saying), members are now being opted-in to having their pages exposed.
From a statement Facebook gave the press last week: "We are giving users approximately one month to set their privacy options before we allow search engines to index these public search listings." If the settings were already set to don’t expose, then users shouldn’t need to set any privacy options unless Facebook is now changing the previous defaults.
Customized: We don’t know if the defaults were set to expose or not, in the past. We do know, however, that some users will likely have found the control panel and customized it one way or the other. What happens if the defaults were set to expose and changed — by the user — to not expose these pages? Does last week’s announcement mean that Facebook will reset the member customization?
I suspect not, and last week’s Facebook blog post did say listings would be exposed "depending on users’ individual privacy settings," which implies they aren’t going to override any customization. But it’s not entirely clear.
4) How Will The Listings Get Into Search Engines?
To be clear, some of these listings are already in search engines despite Facebook is making it seem like this hasn’t happened yet. The statement above talked about a month time period before search engines were allowed to index the listings. The blog post also suggested that search engines wouldn’t be allowed to get these pages for a few weeks. However, some are already out there.
Again, my Facebook Opens Profiles To Tap Into Google Traffic has some screenshots that explain this, or you can try some searches like this and this and this to see more than 25,000 pages in Google (perhaps 60,000 at Ask; 5,000 at Microsoft Live Search and 12,000 at Yahoo).
Of course, Facebook has over 30 million of members, and virtually none of them have listings that have been indexed by the search engines yet. That’s because just creating the public listings doesn’t mean search engines will find them. Those listed already probably manually exposed links to their listings (my past article gets into this more). But in a few weeks, it seems like Facebook itself will put the links out there.
Facebook has two choices here and will likely do both:
- Member Directory: Chances are, Facebook will provide a way to browse through and find all the members on the site (showing only the limited public listings for members, to those not logged in). It will likely be similar to how you can currently browse networks.
- XML Sitemaps: Sitemaps are a way to bulk feed search engines listings. Chances are, Facebook will also feed URLs to the major search engines in addition to making pages crawlable.
Bonus Round: Listed Even If You Say No
That’s it for the questions. I also thought it useful to look at keeping these pages out of the search engines, if you don’t want them listed. Unfortunately, just ticking the "don’t show" option at Facebook won’t be enough.
See, the problem is that if search engines see ANY link pointing at a page, they may list the page even if it is blocked from being spidered. For example, consider this:
That’s an example of how my PRIVATE listing at Facebook shows up on Google already. This is a listing that Facebook is never going to expose to the search engines. But because Google can see a link to it (probably via my Sphinn profile page), it will list the URL and guess about what words to call it in the title.
URLs like these are called "thin" or "partially indexed "by the search engines, and these two articles from me explain more about how they work:
I prefer calling these URL-only listings — and the public listings that Facebook will provide may show up as at URL-only listings even if you think they aren’t supposed to be in the search engines at all. That’s because if there’s even one link pointing at these pages, that can be enough to cause a URL-only listing to be formed. Since Facebook’s going to be supplying links, there’s a good chance many URL-only listings will happen.
What would they show? For me, if I were to block my profile, probably something like this:
As you can see, all you really get from that type of listing is the name of someone who has a profile at Facebook. Anyone can make an account in anyone else’s name, so it doesn’t even indicate that a particular person has this profile. However, it might give some a clue you are on Facebook, especially if you have a distinctive and unusual name. The main takeaway is really that just because you untick the "expose" boxes in the privacy settings does NOT mean you won’t be listed in search engines. It simply means less information will be shown.
Getting Rid Of URL-Only Listings
Remember, the public search listings that Facebook is providing shows practically nothing already. Here’s mine:
You’ve got my name, picture and the fact that I’m on Facebook.
If I disable exposing this, then a URL-only listing — if it happens — gives you the same without the picture. But as I said, maybe even that’s too much for some people. How do you get rid of the URL-only listing?
First, you have to understand how Facebook itself tries to block them. If you set the privacy option to not expose these, Facebook inserts this meta robots tag on your page:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow,noarchive,nosnippet,noydir,noodp"/>
If you want to understand all those commands more, see my Meta Robots Tag 101: Blocking Spiders, Cached Pages & More article. The key one is "noindex," which says don’t spider this page.
For Google, noindex will also prevent a URL-only listing from happening. For Yahoo, it will NOT, according to Yahoo. The only way to remove a URL-only listing from Yahoo is through the Yahoo Site Explorer’s Delete URL feature, and that won’t work with Facebook. Delete URL only works for web sites you can verify having control over. You cannot verify Facebook for yourself!
I don’t know how Microsoft or Ask will react — I’ll check and postscript.
Poking At Facebook’s SEO
As I looked into the blocking issue, I also noticed the other meta tags that Facebook is using. On pages that are NOT blocked, it uses the same meta description tag for each of them:
<meta name="description" content="Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet." />
It’s kind of silly — a meta description tag should uniquely describe the content of a particular page, and using the same description on millions of pages could potentially make them seem duplicates of each other for either indexing or display purposes. In reality, most of these pages will come up in response to a search on someone’s name — and since the name isn’t in the meta description tag, that tag probably won’t be used as the description shown. But Facebook could make these descriptions appear and be far more relevant if it reworked them to incorporate the person’s name and explained this was their public listing on Facebook.
Still with me? Here’s the recap:
- Facebook has been offering public listings well before last week’s announcement.
- These listings have been exposed to search engines before members got a heads-up about it last week.
- Millions of Facebook members have to opt-out of the exposure, if they don’t want it (and may have assumed they were already "private").
- Facebook will be feeding these URLs to the search engines.
- Exposure of the URLs means that even if you opt-out, you might find you get a URL-only listing showing up at Yahoo and maybe Microsoft Live.com and Ask.com.