When Facebook became “the next big thing”, you had the “like” buttons pop up on various web sites. An of course “going viral” was the big thing everybody talked about, in particular SEO experts (or those that would like to be that).

But things have changed. In particular Facebook has. In the beginning, any “like” would be announced in the newsfeed to all your friends. This was what allowed likes to go viral, when your friends re-liked the link. This is what made it attractive to have like buttons on your web pages. (Note that I’m not referring to “likes” of a single Facebook post; they are something quite different!)

Once that everybody “knew” how important this was, everbody tried to make the most out of it. In particular scammers, viruses and SEO people. Every other day, some clickjacking application would flood Facebook with likes. Every backwater website was trying to get more audience by getting “liked”. But at some point Facebook just stopped showing “likes”. This is not bad. It is the obvious reaction when people get too annoyed by the constant “like spam”. Facebook had to put an end to this.

But now that a “like” is pretty much worthless (in my opinion). Still, many people following “SEO Tutorials” are all crazy about likes. Instead, we should reconsider whether we really want to slow down our site loading by having like buttons on every page. A like button is not as lightweight as you might think it is. It’s a complex JavaScript that tries to detect clickjacking attacks, and in fact invades your users’ privacy, up to the point where for example in Germany it may even be illegal to use the Facebook like button on a web site.

In a few months, the SEO people will realize that the “like”s are a fad now, and will likely all try to jump the Google+ bandwagon. Google+ is probably not half as much a “dud” as many think it is (because their friends are still on Facebook and because you cannot scribble birthday wishes on a wall in Google+). The point is that Google can actually use the “+1” likes to improve everyday search results. Google for something a friend liked, and it will show up higher in the search results, and Google will show the friend who recommended it. Facebook cannot do this, because it is not a search engine (well, you can use it for searching people, although Ark probably is better at this, and one does nowhere search as many people as one does regular web searches). Unless they go into a strong partnership with Microsoft Bing or Yahoo, the “like”s can never be as important as Google “+1” likes. So don’t underestimate the Google+ strategy on the long run.

There are more points where Facebook by now is much less useful as it used to be. For example event invitations. When Facebook was in full growth, you could essentially invite all your friends to your events. You could also use lists to organize your friends, and invite only the appropriate subset, if you cared enough. The problem again was: nobody cared enough. Everybody would just invite all their friends, and you would end up getting “invitation spam” several times a day. So again Facebook had to change and limit the invitation capabilities. You can no longer invite all, or even just all on one particular list. There are some tools and tricks that can work around this to some extend, but once everybody uses that, Facebook will just have to cut it down even further.

Similarly, you might remember “superpoke” and all the “gift” applications. Facebook (and the app makers) probably made a fortune on them with premium pokes and gifts. But then this too reached a level that started to annoy the users, so they had to cut down the ability of applications to post to walls. And boom, this segment essentially imploded. I havn’t seen numbers on Facebook gaming, and I figure that by doing some special setup for the games Facebook managed to keep them somewhat happy. But many will remember the time when the newsfeed would be full of Farmville and Mafia Wars crap … it just does no longer work this way.

So when working with Facebook and such, you really need to be on the move. Right now it seems that groups and applications are more useful to get that viral dream going. A couple of apps such as Yahoo currently require you to install their app (which then may post to your wall on your behalf and get your personal information!) to follow a link shared this way, and then can actively encourage you to reshare. And messages sent to a “Facebook group” are more likely to reach people that aren’t direct friends of yours. When friends actually “join” an event, this is currently showing up in the news feed. But all of this can change with 0 days notice.

It will be interesting to see if Facebook can on the long run keep up with Googles ability to integrate the +1 likes into search results. It probably takes just a few success stories in the SEO community to become the “next big thing” in SEO to get +1 instead of Facebook likes. Then Google just has to wait for them to virally spread +1 adoption. Google can wait - its Google Plus growth rates aren’t bad, and they have a working business model already that doesn’t rely on the extra growth - they are big already and make good profits.

Facebook however is walking on a surprisingly thin line. They need a tight control on the amount of data shared (which is probably why they try to do this with “magic”). People don’t want to have the impression that Facebook is hiding something from them (although it is in fact suppressing a huge part of your friends activity!), but they also don’t want to get all this data spammed onto them. And in particular, it needs to give the web publishers and app developers the right amount of that extra access to the users, while in turn keeping the major spam away from the users.

Independent of the technology and actual products, it will be really interesting to see if we manage to find some way to keep the balance in “social” one-to-many communication right. It’s not a fault of Facebook that many people “spam” all their friends with all their “data”. Googles Circles probably isn’t the final answer either. The reason why email still works rather well was probably because it makes one-to-one communication easier than one-to-many, because it isn’t realtime, and because people expect you to put enough effort into composing your mails and choosing the right receipients for the message. Current “social” communication is pretty much posting everything to everyone you know adressed as “to whoever it may concern”. Much of it is in fact pretty non-personal or even non-social. We have definitely reached the point where more data is shared than is being read. Twitter is probably the most extreme example of a “write-only” medium. The average number a tweet is read by a human except the original poster must be way below 1, and definitely much less than the average number of “followers”.

So in the end, the answer may actually be a good automatic address book, with automatic groups and rich clients, to enable everybody to easily use email more efficiently. On the other hand, separting “serious” communication from “entertainment” communication may be well worth having a separate communications channel, and email definitely is dated and is having spam problems.