Rewarding people for "liking" a brand on Facebook has created some eye-popping headlines.  Bing offered FarmVille players three units of "Farm Cash" for friending the search engine on Facebook, and the outcome was 400,000 new fans in a day.  Einstein Bagels offered a free bagel to new fans and increased its fan count from 4,700 to near 350,000 in three days.  It's hard to argue with success, but could tactics like these come back to haunt brands as the next generation of search evolves in the coming years?  

Bing recently launched a new social feature on its search engine.  If you're logged into Facebook when you conduct a search on Bing, you will see specially highlighted search results of links or brands that your Facebook friends have liked.  The "Liked Results" feature makes sense–it's as if your friends are beside you as you search and chiming in with their personal recommendations.

But what happens when your friends "like" things for reasons other than genuine affinity?  Will those "Liked Results" still be relevant?  An ExactTarget study found that 39% of people friend a brand "to show support for the company to others."  But 40% do so to receive discounts and promotions and 36% to get a “freebie.” There is a worthwhile question that we could probe as to whether rewarding people with freebies for the purpose of gaining followers is authentic in the age of social media, but instead I'd like to ask a different question:  Might compensating people to follow a brand be the "Black Hat" SEO tactic that comes back to bite the company in years to come? 

For those unfamiliar with the term, "Black Hat" search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are high-risk activities designed to get better search rankings in an unethical manner. They are high risk because being caught can result in search engine relevance decreasing rather than increasing. Search engines have a compelling reason to provide the most accurate and authentic results to searchers, so when a site is caught keyword stuffing, using invisible text, buying into link farms or otherwise circumventing search engines' evaluation of genuine interest and activity, the ramifications can be substantial. Sites that run afoul of search engine rules can sink ever lower in search results or end up banned from a search engine's pages altogether.  

In the early days of search, many Black Hat SEO tactics didn't violate search engines rules and didn't seem like such a bad idea for popular brand sites trying to get on the first page of results.  In fact, Black Hat SEO tactics worked — for a while.  But as search engines matured, earning consumer trust required they find ways to end the manipulation of search results, and some brands got caught as the rules for the game changed.  Tactics that once seemed effective were suddenly hurting instead of helping.

Which brings me back to the state of social search today. It's so new, it's hard to even say social search is in its infancy; its more of a late-stage embryo right now.  Much will change in the next few years, and we cannot know what will happen as social search grows or how search engine algorithms will separate the winners from the losers.  But if buying links was considered to be an inauthentic way of increasing inbound links and improving search engine traffic, it's hard for me to imagine that compensating new fans for doing something they wouldn't otherwise do absent the reward will be treated any differently.

Gaining an army of Facebook fans will be a huge competitive advantage in the coming era of social search, but brands should be cautious how they recruit that army.  Tactics that seem smart and easy today could turn out to be dumb and too easy tomorrow.  

In fact, "too easy" should be the clue.  It was too easy to buy links or create fake doorway pages, so today Web site owners have to earn their way to the first page of Google the hard way — by genuinely being worthy of being there.  Brands hoping to help their social search engine relevance by amassing fans should take heed — the easy way may work for a while, but the authentic and hard way always wins in the end.  

(Note: I am not unaware of the irony that Bing is both an example of a brand that rewarded people for following and also a search engine that will live or die on the authenticity of the social search results it furnishes in the future. Now that social search is a part of Bing, I'm curious to see if it repeats the pay-for-like tactic that it used in the past.)