Why Bing shouldn't 'Like' Facebook

Microsoft's Bing search engine can now tell you what your friends 'Like'. And the fact is, we don't 'Like' it one bit.

The reason? Simple. 'Like' is meaningless.

We at thinq_ are far from shy when it comes to donning the curmudgeon boot and delivering a swift kicking. But Microsoft handed us a prime opportunity today when it announced it would be making its search results more 'social', using data from Facebook. Bing will now scatter its search results with recommendations from Facebook 'friends' on restaurants, websites and other resources.

As we revealed last November, Facebook's 'Like' button is a covert means of tracking users as they traverse the web.

If it has any value to users, the 'Like' button and its recommendations form part of the so-called 'semantic web' that doesn't just catalogue 'things', but understands and represents the meanings and relationships between them.

Broad brush
Trouble is, Facebook's quest to represent all species of human emotion via the sappy and, frankly, less-than-compelling expression 'Like' paints with a broad brush over every nuance of genuine or meaningful recommendation.

For instance: say my 'friend' informs me and a host of other cyber-acquaintances in a Facebook post that their pet/child/lover of 20 years has passed away. Do I express my condolences with a thumbs-up? A social faux pas if ever there was one.

Then there's the fact that Facebook appears to have taken its proverbial grandmother's advice - "If you can't say something good, don't say anything" - at face value. 'Like' doesn't even involve a binary choice. There's no yang to its yin.

To Like or... not
In an alternative universe, I might 'Like' Justin Bieber's latest single. But there's no way for me to adequately express the awfulness of Rebecca Black's paean to the end of the week, Friday. And for every slack-jawed fool who dribbled their online approval at Jedward's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, how many numberless masses sat seething before their computer keyboard, bereft of the opportunity to adequately express their contempt with a button-click?

Even UK tabloid-for-snobs The Daily Mail, in its quest to subdivide everything in the history of the world into 'Things That Cause Cancer' and 'Things That Cure Cancer (Probably)' recognises that there are two sides to every coin.

If there's one thing that could be said for 'Like', you'd at least hope it was democratic. And it is... until you start to examine the effects of this pseudo-endorsement. My Like, however capricious or ill-considered, ought to be worth every bit as much as that of, say, Stephen Fry or Lady Gaga - it's my personal view. But the endorsement of one of these web 'slebs will doubtless provoke more of a stampede than I might among my own meagre following.

I'd suggest some sort of 'Alternative Like' system, in which users could rank a few of their favourite things in order, with the least favourite dropping out after the first round and being replaced by those users' second most-Liked things... but I fear it might never catch on.

When 'Like' doesn't mean 'Like'
But then we come to the real killer: often, 'Like' doesn't even mean 'Like' at all. 'Like' is frequently synonymous with 'Let me in, I want to see this'. Or 'gimme some free stuff'. Or 'what on earth is this about anyway?'

Advertisers, website owners and businesses all recognise the power of humanity's herd instinct, and have been quick to cash in on the 'Like'. What they've done, though, threatens to undermine the very system of social recommendation that 'Like' claims to represent.

Last month, the paywalled web site of US magazine the New Yorker gave away a 1,200-word article written by author Jonathan Franzen. For free. The catch? Users had to 'Like' the New Yorker on Facebook in order to gain access - effectively endorsing a product they had yet to see.

Before the article, the mag boasted 200,000 Facebook fans. Immediately afterwards, that figure was close to 220,000. Of course, disappointed users could have gone back and subsequently un-Liked the Condé Nasty publication - but would anyone really bother? Jeff Widman of analyst Brand Glue recently claimed that 88 per cent of users who 'Like' a brand's page on Facebook never subsequently return to that page.

And the New Yorker isn't the only one playing the 'Like' game. Advertisers including Puma, Macy's and Budweiser have all tantalised users with freebies hidden behind a so-called 'Like wall', requiring them to signal their endorsement before they can even gain access.

Facebook, Bing and the rest don't 'know' your friends: you do. So when Bing next tells you this or that friend 'Likes' a book or film or restaurant, ask yourself: what does that actually mean?

Or better still, phone them up and ask them for a personal recommendation. It's good to talk.