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How Facebook Leveraged Publishers’ Desperation to Build a Web-Wide Tracking System

Facebook’s “Like” button isn’t there for your convenience—it’s crack rock for publishers in need of page views.

We already know that Facebook, Twitter, and Google can use their share widgets to track your reading habits across the Web, even when you never interact with the seemingly ubiquitous buttons that appear atop an ever growing array of articles and blog posts.

Graph by Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land

But perhaps what’s less well understood is just why those share tools are growing like kudzu on a stretch of disturbed forest. They’re essentially free advertisements for businesses that share no revenue with the publishers who slavishly plaster them all over their sites, so what gives? Well, this:

Facebook says integrating its sharing tools triples referral traffic to media sites

Huffington Post readers who sign in via Facebook read 22 percent more pages and visit eight minutes longer than the average reader.

The trend is obvious. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Facebook’s buttons appear on a third of the world’s 1,000 most-visited websites […] buttons from Twitter and Google Inc. appear on 20% and 25% of those sites, respectively.”

Facebook is so important to pageviews that upon Gawker’s relaunch, empresario Nick Denton announced that it was the only source of social traffic that matters.

As one of the few sites that hundreds of millions can be counted on to visit regularly, Facebook is supplanting Google as the gatekeeper to Web traffic. I’ve seen it from the inside: sites that take the time to promote their content through an active Facebook presence can do wonders for their page views. As more and more outlets wake up to this reality, we can expect that Facebook “like” buttons—and to a lesser extent other social sharing widgets—will approach 100 percent penetration on the Web.

What happens then? Facebook, Twitter, and Google all say they anonymize user browsing data and dispose of it relatively quickly. But what if it’s subpoenaed? What happens when they realize just how lucrative this data is and, in a bid to “build shareholder value,” they start monetizing it? Those Like buttons have the potential to be, essentially, a window on the browser history of every Facebook user on the planet—all 700 million of them.

It’s precisely this eventuality that has inspired projects like Brian Kennish’s Disconnect plugin, which blocks search engines and Facebook from collecting this kind of information.

The irony, if you can call it that, is that Facebook could never have accomplished all this without the help of all the world’s publishers. They need the traffic Facebook sends their way even more than Facebook needs to make its presence felt on yet another website. To opt out of the Like button army is to leave page views, and therefore money, on the table.

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