Follow up Monday: LinkedIn’s Reference Search & Facebook’s news feed

A short update for two companies I often write about, LinkedIn and Facebook, and some product news for each.

First up is LinkedIn. An article in the NY Times described a product that LinkedIn offers corporate recruiters (for a fee) called “Reference Search.” It looks up people with employment locations and dates identical to a job candidate and allows recruiters to contact them. The recruiters then ask these people about the candidate as essentially references, but not those supplied by the candidate. The candidate has no part in this “transaction” and usually has no idea the reference checks have been made and with who. A lawsuit against LinkedIn claims that “in providing the job reference material, enabled potential employers to anonymously dig into the employment history of any LinkedIn member, and make hiring and firing decisions based upon the information they gather, without ensuring that the information was accurate. This, they said, is a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.” LinkedIn, in response, said that the information was all freely supplied by the all users involved, both the candidate and the co-workers contacted, and that the “Reference Search” doesn’t reveal information that was not available publicly.

The beauty and intricacy of social networks. My LinkedIn connections. created by LinkedIn Maps.

The beauty and intricacy of social networks.
My LinkedIn connections. created by LinkedIn Maps.

This is true and I would have accepted that if LinkedIn had not added the clincher: “If you don’t like how LinkedIn operates, you can terminate your account.” That’s when it becomes unfair. Job hunters cannot afford not to be on LinkedIn. The usage statistics for LinkedIn are staggering: 93% of companies use LinkedIn for recruiting. This means that LinkedIn cannot shrug off complaints about how a product is being used with the “if you don’t like it, go elsewhere” argument. A better idea is to improve the product and educate both users and recruiters how to use it. Better in that, for example, the candidate’s degree of closeness with these “unvetted” references be included in the report. This is a “ranking” that LinkedIn can determine based on more than just the company worked at and dates. Divisions, products, and job titles can factor into this ranking. The next step will be to educate recruiters on how to use these rankings.

Second on my follow up list is a new admission from Facebook that the news feed doesn’t work for users, and ends up giving them updates from people they don’t care about. It was interesting to read the NY Times’ take on it: “Why does Facebook show me every single post from people I barely know and but doesn’t show me the gems from a favorite cousin? Why do I constantly see ads for products I would never buy and yet never see the free coffee promo from my favorite cafe? Why did Facebook do such a lousy job showing me election news this week, even though I have scores of journalist friends and follow a dozen news sites that were posting stories about the results?” This is the kind of product behavior that would send other users away in droves, but Facebook’s users are more loyal than that. The new tool allows users to control a bit of what they don’t want to see in their news feed by allowing them to “unfollow” users and groups to stop seeing updates from them.

For Facebook, the news feed is the product that drives ad revenue. Precise targeting and in-feed placement drive great results for advertisers and we probably won’t see Facebook allowing users to block those. But that said, I do wonder why the news feed algorithm causes so much anxiety to users and seems to difficult to optimize according to Facebook. Perhaps the decision not to show users to see everything from the users they have chosen to friend was misguided. Maybe users are smart enough to at least control the people from which they want to see updates directly? Active control, like the blocking tool, not just passively with likes and shares. The question is if users are smart enough to do it and if those controls don’t mess up Facebook’s advertising revenue.

Finally, sometimes there’s a lot of insight to be gained just by reading the comments. Facebook users commenting on the NY Times article asked for just one thing: for Facebook to keep the newsfeed setting “show most recent” and not revert to what Facebook calls “top stories.” Users really seem to prefer the former and would really like Facebook to stop changing it back. Is that too much to ask?


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