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Anyone using Facebook knows about the “like” facility: every user post has a link below it that you can click to indicate you like that post. It’s a small thing but it has a big effect as a social barometer: he who gets liked a lot gets befriended a lot, and “friends” are the measure of success on a social network.

The “like” facility has expanded over time. There are now Facebook pages that are solely interested in getting “liked” to build a base of popularity that will drive traffic to a full-blown Web site. There are charitable organizations using this traffic routing tool, as well as commercial sites and the ubiquitous bloggers and opinion muffs (not moi!).

Now, Facebook is planning to extend “like” Web-wide. Visitors to sites can express their liking and give that site a sort of vote or rating – the more likes you get the more likely you are to get traffic. It seems like such a simple idea, but it has the potential to change the virtual landscape of the Internet.

Until now search engines, and in particular Google have been the exclusive arbiters of popularity. Search hits have been the indicator of popularity, and the search companies are very interested in selling you a spot in the “First Fifty” returned links in any search. As this CNN story points out there is an entire industry in making Web sites popular with the search engines.

But now we have this egalitarian approach of the “like” indicator. Not only might this provide some much-needed competition for Google, but it could make Web popularity a truly populist measure of success. Of course there will be attempts to subvert it: corporate hackers are already head-down in their development tools inventing ways to perform a “like strike” that will inflate a site’s “like” hits artificially – a “like-bot”, if you will. But Facebook is up to that challenge. I hope. Because there is one small problem with Facebook: they are reactive and opportunistic. They jump on new trends fast and are just as quick to drop them once the initial rush of novelty wears off.

It will be interesting to see how this new method of site rating works itself out in the near future. Will it be copied by the likes of Google and Microsoft’s Bing service? Will it spark the creation of new business models based on chasing the “like factor” in public popularity? Will it affect politics if we can instantly “like” a candidate, or even a pending bill in congress? How would instantaneous like-ratings have affected the voting on health care reform? Might this instant approbation be the herald of virtual mob rule?