Facebook’s “Dirty Likes” May Mislead Graph Search Initially, But Facebook Has Other Good Signals, Too


Image Credits:

Apparently I “like” OfficeMax, Folgers, JCPenney, Kraft and several other big-name brands. At least, according to Facebook I do. Except, it’s wrong. It’s not that I dislike these brands, really (well except maybe Folgers – I mean, yuck). But the truth is, I’m just indifferent to them. Why did I like them? I don’t recall. I probably saw a coupon. Maybe a freebie or contest. I was bored, and I had to click “like” to enter the drawing. This is a common situation among Facebook users, but not really a huge problem. For Facebook, however, it is.

With Facebook now launching a search engine on top of its own structured data – conveniently after turning off the ability for users to opt out of search – there’s now a greater need to think about the implications of Facebook’s “over one trillion connections,” and how representative they are of the people who created them.

As a whole, Facebook’s “like” data may paint a relatively accurate picture of my public self – I like technology, apps, Star Wars, TV, family activities, and jokes about how much wine working mothers have to drink to stay sane (hint: it’s a lot). But when examined one-by-one, there’s a lot of junk data in there.

Initially, when and if people begin to transition to Facebook search over Google, they will be searching for things of personal interest, like old photos, places to travel, new bars or restaurants to try, local singles with shared interests, and more. But further down the road, you can imagine Facebook graph search becoming a part of the consumer shopping experience, too.

Say I’m looking for a new dryer, an HDTV, a new credit card, or maybe even a good sushi restaurant, and I want to know what my Facebook graph can recommend. The problem, as it stands today, is that Facebook would do a poor job of extracting that information accurately. “Friends who liked X” is not a recommendation. “Friends who checked in at Y venue” isn’t either.

With check-ins, at least, Facebook is addressing that latter issue somewhat via its Nearby feature, which has recently been prompting users to recommend or rate the restaurant, bar or other venue on a five-star scale. This data isn’t perfect either, because some friends’ ratings are more valuable than others’ ratings due to a variety of factors – their palates, biases, whether they’re wine-savvy, or similarities with a user’s own tastes, for example. But it’s a start.

On the “like” front, though, the data is murkier.

Steve Cheney, GroupMe’s Head of Biz Dev, explained this problem in more detail in a thoughtful, if pessimistic, post: “Graph Search’s Dirty Promise and the Con of the Facebook ‘Like’.” It’s well worth reading in its entirety. In it, Cheney says:

The truth however is that the link between query intent and your social interactions for interests and places is much weaker than FB wants you to believe.

In computer architecture they call an out of date piece of data “dirty”. Accessing dirty data is bad, wasting time and causing more harm than good. And in this context, much of the structured data that makes up Graph Search is just that: totally irrelevant and dirty.

It turns out as much as half of the links between objects and interests contained in FB are dirty—i.e. there is no true affinity between the like and the object or it’s stale. Never mind does the data not really represent user intent… but the user did not even ‘like’ what she was liking.

He goes on to explain that the problem was created by the way the Facebook “like” system worked. The company told brands that users would see their posts in their news feeds if the users liked the brand’s page on Facebook. So the brands paid big money in terms of advertising dollars to acquire fans. “Across the board big advertisers were told to spend 50% of their ad buy solely on fan acquisition,” Cheney writes. He calls it a “dirty little secret in ad agency land.”

like us on fbThis is why, today, Facebook users can’t just request a coupon, get a free sample, enter a contest, hear about a limited-time sale, etc. via a brand’s page – they are forced to like the page first. This then establishes a connection between the brand and the user. And now Facebook is mining that connection to build its own search engine. Google has PageRank. Facebook has “like” data, check-ins, posts, comments and photos. Here are some of the queries you can perform with Facebook Graph Search, to get an idea of how it will work.

A  “Like” Is But One Signal, Facebook Has More

But that being said, while Cheney has a point about Facebook’s “dirty data,” I think that point of view also discounts Facebook’s capacity to innovate. Yes, some data is bad. But not all of it.

And most importantly, it seems clear that a Facebook like, in the context of businesses and brands, will eventually have to become one signal among many in Facebook’s search results ranking algorithm. Just as engines such as Google rely on thousands of signals to determine where a link appears in search results, Facebook too could turn to other means to determine how much value any particular “like” has. For example, with a restaurant, it could also know not just whether you liked it, but when you checked in, how often you returned, who you were with, how often they return, how you rated it, what friends and friends of your friends rated it, and more.

As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine also recently pointed out, even users’ photo uploads could translate into recommendations, thanks to the photos’ geotags (location where the photo was taken). A photo says “I was there,” and it often implicitly implies an element of fun, too. As Josh noted, “I don’t see many people posting pics from the DMV.”

Facebook News Years Graph Search

With brands, determining a like’s value is more difficult, though. However, with Facebook’s advertising network, Facebook Exchange, which brought the first cookie-based retargeted ads to Facebook, Facebook can gain access to other signals about user behavior in order to better examine what a “like” means. For example, Facebook could learn whether a user visited a brand’s website, when their visit(s) occurred, whether or not those visits later led them to the advertiser’s Facebook page (after seeing a Facebook ad, for instance), and then provoked the user’s “like.”

Facebook could port the Facebook Exchange to mobile as well, which could bring in even more data, including perhaps one day, geolocation. That would solve the messy “check-in” problem. (Check-ins are a decidedly manual, privacy-sensitive way of getting location data an app could just know, if users gave it permission to run in the background.)

The trick will be in finding the proper way to massage all these various signals into an algorithm that makes sense and determines the proper relevancy. And Facebook is still critically missing information related to users’ financial transactions, which is the end result of clicking “like,” at least in brands’ eyes. It currently has some access to purchase data, through its relationship with Datalogix, but that may be limited to things such as grocery store purchases – data Facebook receives via Datalogix loyalty card data sets. Facebook clearly needs more of this kind of information.

Facebook also doesn’t necessarily know if you ever ate at that restaurant you liked, unlike when you checked in, posted geotagged photos, or reviewed it. And it doesn’t know how much you spent there, either. That’s why if Google ever gets its Google Wallet mobile payments service into the mainstream, it could best Facebook on at least this portion: closing the loop.

Still, Facebook does have access to a relatively powerful data set through Open Graph, which tells it not just what people like, but what they do. Open Graph data comes in through any third-party app that auto-shares with Facebook, providing information on things like your media consumption behavior (e.g. bands, TV shows, movies, books), as well as info gleaned from things like food or travel apps, and it may also have a decent amount of information from local businesses, too.

At the end of the day, the way I see Facebook’s graph search now is like looking at the bare bones of an idea, really the raw skeleton of what could one day become a more fully-fledged search offering. Today, dirty data will abound, perhaps. But when there are one trillion connections to examine (and growing), there’s also the possibility to find the golden nuggets of quality from among the junk.

Image credit: sofiabudapest/flickr

Additional reporting by: Josh Constine

More TechCrunch

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender Solo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient, and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

OpenAI is removing one of the voices used by ChatGPT after users found that it sounded similar to Scarlett Johansson, the company announced on Monday. The voice, called Sky, is…

OpenAI to remove ChatGPT’s Scarlett Johansson-like voice

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets