Facebook just announced the availability of a new feature for users creating accounts on the social network: Suggested Interests. Facebook will now recommend that new users sign up for updates from (“Like”) publishers with high reader engagement and subscribed-to by people demographically similar to themselves. That’s a unique combination of factors that only Facebook could offer.

If this intersection of 3 key social software trends is someday exposed more fully to all 500 million Facebook users and more – the Facebook vs. Google battle could become a fight between Recommendation and Search. Facebook recommendations are in the sidebar for most users today, but they are so powerful that it’s worth betting they’ll be center stage in the future.

User demographics, audience engagement metrics and syndicated feed subscription are each data plays that can change the way software intersects with users. Put them all together and there may never have been a platform that knew so much about people, monitored publisher effectiveness so closely and made subscription so easy for such an incredible number of people.

What other website do people tell as much about themselves as Facebook? What other website do people connect as directly with people they know in the physical, off-line world? Facebook’s ability to recommend friends that you actually know when you create an account, based only on your email address, is pretty jaw dropping in and of itself. Facebook says the page recommendation is based on users similar to yourself, but these recommendations are surfaced before you fill out your profile information. Facebook is using some seriously magical secret sauce to figure out who your friends might be, then what you might like based on your shared demographics, before asking you anything more than your email, name and age. That’s pretty amazing. Presumably they are pinging 3rd party email databases – but that would be an interesting story to dig into!

All these personal details and connections can be cross referenced to create a rich picture of who you are and what you might like. There have been a lot of behind-the-scenes user tracking and profiling technologies developed over recent years – but what can come close to a system people opt-into and tell all about themselves?

Likewise, Facebook has for years been paying very close attention to the click-through, commenting and update-hiding rates of publishers on its platform. If your application gets a good response from users, for example, it’s allowed to push more updates out over time. If relatively few people click on your links, then applications see their rate of allowed updates lowered.

Organizations, “brands” and other publishers with Fan Pages that people subscribe to (“Like”) have their click-through rates tracked similarly. On the surface at least, it’s a pretty straight-forward relationship between user demographics, publishers you’re most likely to be interested in and who get a lot of engagement from their current subscribers.

The end result is subscribers for publishers on the Facebook platform and subscriptions for users. RSS never caught on with the mainstream, but Facebook updates have. Subscription to syndicated updates from a potentially infinite variety of niche publishers has long been one of the dreams of the internet. This represents an important upgrade from Facebook’s introduction of about 100 suggested Pages to Like in February.

This is just the beginning. Above, today’s new prompt for an existing account to fill out interest fields – years after account creation.

The Google-Battling Power of Recommendations

That Facebook says these recommendations cannot be purchased and are entirely algorithmic is very important. That’s an important nod towards the democratizing nature of the system. Another would be if the algorithm privileged some relevant and high-quality but long tail publishers – not just what’s popular and successful among similar people. It’s hard to believe there won’t be some paid option some time in the future.

Recommendation-geeks have argued that recommendation may someday become bigger, more important and more lucrative than search. Recommendation is like a smarter, pre-emptive search before you even thought to search for anything. The richness of the data that this is based on inside Facebook is truly incredible. This could be how the battle between Facebook and Google plays out: as Recommendation vs. Search. User demographics vs. search personalization. Publisher engagement vs. Pagerank. Now what does Google have to offer against Facebook’s key feature – the Newsfeed people opt-in to get subscriptions (and ads, basically) pushed in front of them, side by side with baby pictures and friend updates, into the indefinite future?

It’s too bad this had to happen under a proprietary platform with privacy problems. These subscriptions people sign up for were turned irretrievably public in the Great Privacy Implosion of last December. The idea of irretrievably public subscriptions is comparable to a requirement that your library book check-out history be printed on paper and nailed to the front door of your house. It’s crazy and anti-social. Then, at the last F8 Facebook developers’ conference, the company changed this policy and allowed users to make their subscriptions private – though they still default to being public.

None the less, I’m not sure there’s ever been a platform in history that knew so much about people, monitored publisher effectiveness so closely and made subscription so easy for so many people.

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marshall kirkpatrick

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