By now, you've no doubt heard about the questionable practices PR firm Burson-Marsteller engaged in on behalf of Facebook to "raise awareness of" and "focus attention" on Google's Social Search functionality. Certainly, the actions of B-M do not conform to any reasonable definition of public relations ethics and only serve to perpetuate negative perceptions of our industry as a whole.
The real losers in the battle: everyone.
For those not aware of the background, Google now shows searchers information on how people within their online social graph have interacted with pages that are returned as a part of search results, including tweets, Facebook interactions and various other socially enabled actions. All of this information is being pulled from publicly available data that Google crawls by following links in a user's Google Profile. This is all perfectly legal and in the name of providing a better and more relevant web experience.
If that all sounds pretty familiar, it should. Through Facebook's Open Graph, you are probably used to seeing how your friends are interacting with the websites they visit – including stories they "liked" or "recommended" and commented on. You may even know they like a brand in general, despite never even having visited that brand's website. This is Facebook's way of showing you – wait for it – a better and more relevant web experience.
Both companies have taken some lumps for the liberal use of consumer information without proactively informing users that they are doing so. This is despite the fact that most would argue, in the end, both techniques actually do provide a better web experience, facilitating better information exchange and deepening both interpersonal connections and brand-to-consumer connections.
What's sad about this entire kerfuffle is that it's not really about shoddy data privacy or better web experiences. In the end, it's all about advertising revenue and gaining a competitive edge to attract more eyeballs and ad dollars. Both products are great and have improved the world we live in considerably. But, by slinging mud and focusing on the supposed weaknesses of their competitors instead of their own strengths, they have effectively weakened consumer confidence in the industry and given consumers another reason to doubt that online communications even serve their interests.
For those keeping score: doubt - 1; progress - 0.
--Mike Hollywood, Director of New Media, @mikehollywood