Memo to LinkedIn: Copying Facebook has its downsides

Updated: Ever since it went public earlier this year, LinkedIn (s lnkd) has been trying to expand — or possibly to justify — the $9-billion market value it was awarded after its initial public offering of shares. Among other things, it has continued to try to mimic aspects of Twitter and Facebook, as it tries to entrench itself as a social network for the corporate market. But it seems to have gone too far in the wrong direction when it comes to copying Facebook: a recent change that opted LinkedIn’s 100-million-plus users into a social-advertising campaign feels a lot like some of Facebook’s past privacy-related blunders, and a questionable move for a company that’s trying hard to become a destination for business users.

The change appears to have actually occurred a couple of months ago, when the service updated its privacy policy. As part of the update, LinkedIn noted which sections had changed, and one of those came under the heading of “advertising.” In a nutshell, as blogger Steve Woodruff appears to have been the first to notice, the policy signed LinkedIn users up by default for a “social advertising” campaign that allows the service to use their profile photos, names and activity in ads based on the content they share with their social graph on the network. The clause states:

In order to deliver relevant and valuable ads to you and your network, LinkedIn may use your name and profile photo in connection with social advertising based on content shared on LinkedIn. This advertising may include the fact that you have recommended or endorsed a product or service on LinkedIn, followed a company, joined Groups or conversations, established or added content to your profile.

To the company’s credit, as security blogger Paul Ducklin notes on the Sophos blog, it at least flagged the changes to the policy, and provided a link to the setting that allows users to opt out of the social-advertising campaign (which is here if you want to opt out). And LinkedIn did describe the changes on its blog at the time — including an offhand reference to the fact that users would all be opted-in to the new service by default — although it described the feature in glowing terms as a way of providing more relevant advertising for businesses and individuals using the network.

Who thought opt in by default was a good idea?

The big question here is: Why did LinkedIn think that opting users in to such a feature by default would be a good idea? Presumably, someone at the company must have noticed how much trouble Facebook has caused by opting users in to services by default — particularly ones that expose their data or profiles or activity on the network to others, and especially ones that do so for the purposes of advertising. The word “Beacon” is probably still spoken only in a hushed whisper around Facebook after the social advertising it tried to implement blew up in the company’s face, and newer versions have also been described by many as “creepy.”

Now LinkedIn has deliberately chosen to put itself in exactly the same position as the larger social network it keeps trying to copy. Many of the responses to the company’s privacy changes use phrases like “Facebook-style stunt” or “pulling a Facebook,” and the overwhelming sense is that — like its competitor — LinkedIn tried to pull one over on its users somehow. Is that really what the company needs right now, especially when it’s trying to justify that huge market valuation? The move may even have broken the law in Europe.

No doubt the company decided that making the new social-advertising campaign opt-out by default, and then trying to convince users to sign up for it later, would be too difficult and/or wouldn’t produce enough of a response. Those are likely the same reasons Facebook made the same decision — but it has suffered for it, and LinkedIn deserves to as well. Not giving users the ability to make that choice before they are signed up shows a disrespect for them that’s hard to ignore.

Is this any way to improve engagement?

While the introduction of social advertising may help the company generate more ad revenue, something analysts have been looking for as they try to decide whether it’s a growth stock or not, one of the other issues LinkedIn has been dealing with is how to improve the engagement levels on the site: in other words, how often users return and how long they spend when they do so. Among other things, it has added a social-news aggregation service called LinkedIn Today as a way of doing that (and some critics say it has also made it unnecessarily difficult to close out your LinkedIn account).

All of which raises the question: Is opting users into a new social-advertising campaign by default — especially one that raises so many obvious privacy issues — really a wise move? If it seems unwise even for a mass-market social network like Facebook to be doing those kinds of things, it seems even more unwise for a service that’s allegedly catering to a sophisticated business customer to do so.

Update: In a blog post responding to the criticisms of its social-advertising campaign, LinkedIn’s director of product management admits that the company “could have communicated our intentions —- to provide more value and relevancy to our members —- more clearly,” and says that the campaign has been changed. The ads that appear on the site will now no longer include the names or photos of users, the company said.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Nan Palmero and Josh Hallett