September 14, 2007

Google Begins Indexing Facebook

Print More

What you say online really does echo for eternity. At the beginning of this month, Facebook began publicly listing users’ profiles through mainstream search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN Live. Facebook is making this part of its campaign to expand the website beyond the college community and into other networks.
According to Meredith Chin, coordinator of corporate communications for Facebook, the aim of allowing non-registered users to access profiles is so they can find their friends.
“This is part of our plan to shift into different demographics, and non-registered users can see the value in Facebook before they log on and register,” she said.
Currently, each search listing will only display the user’s name and profile picture. Unless a user actively opts out of being included in the search index, Facebook will automatically include a user’s profile in the public search listings, which takes a significant amount of control away from the user.
However, there is some concern that in allowing profiles to be crawled by popular search engines, employers will be able to more readily access information about job applicants, especially college students. Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell Career Services, said, “Students have this naive notion that employers won’t look at their profile because it violates their privacy, but they are wrong.”
While many students think employers would never use Facebook to screen applicants, it is becoming a fairly standard practice. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a 2006 poll found that 27 percent of employers registered with the organization admitted to “Googling” job candidates. Out of all industries, service sectors such as financial and insurance companies were 31 percent more likely to use online information. For government positions, that number drops to 21 percent.
In a recent column in The Sun, columnist Greg Wolfe asked, “Why and when did a resume, interview and possible criminal record become insufficient? A person’s personal life does not affect whether he or she can crunch numbers or perform market research.”
But, Sparrow pointed out, “Employers care because it shows something about a person’s judgment that isn’t provided when they look at your resume. Employers want to understand the many facets of their employees and see if they are exercising good judgment.”
Though Facebook was initially marketed as a tool that lets users control the amount of information posted about themselves on the internet, there is some criticism that the site has been pushing the boundaries first with the newsfeed and now public search indexes.
This is not the first instance of a social networking site opening up its users’ profiles to search engines. Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman, said, “LinkedIn currently does [the same] with its user profiles. They are crawled and indexed by our search engine, and we rank them appropriately in the search results.”
No other networking site besides MySpace has as large of an online presence with the college community; it is necessary for students to take precautions to protect themselves in aspects of their life that they think are personal, including their voice mail and email address. However, even safeguarding these features is not enough to prevent some employers from using backhanded techniques to dig up “digital dirt” about prospects’ personal lives.
“I don’t believe this changes anything. It doesn’t expose anything that hasn’t already been exposed. People can always reset their privacy settings if they don’t want to be listed, and their are clear instructions on the website on how to do that,” Chin said.
Another issue that worries job applicants is that they will no longer be assessed for their resumes or grades; rather, employers will look at other factors like appearance, sexual orientation or political affiliation, all of which are illegal reasons to reject someone for a job.
“Even if you make something private, employers can still try to find someone who can get behind your privacy settings. They could even retrieve photos that were untagged by searching around your friend’s profile,” Sparrow said. “If you don’t want anything your employer to see 10 years from now, take it down and make your profile private. The cost of a mistake is far greater than publicly being seen by old friends and acquaintances.”
Kira Grant ’09 intends to do just that.
She explained, “I will certainly be much more conscientious of my privacy settings and will take certain precautions to keep my profile private to avoid judgment from prospective employers. But it irritates me that the Facebook population has become so accessible.”
David Musselwhite ’10 disagreed.
“Facebook serves the basic purpose of social networking,” he said. “Students need to be careful and protect their information from employers and administrators. It is a student’s responsibility to ensure they are protected. Ideally, I would set my listing to have my name and no profile picture so that people would know I’m on there, but nothing else.”
Chin recognized that by allowing profiles to be publicly indexed, this promotes easier accessibility, but ultimately, “the website is about connecting with people.”
While the possibility of employers trolling for embarrassing photos may seem terrifying, “I think it’s important to remember that most everyone has a social life, including the employers themselves,” Grant said.