How valuable is a Facebook like? Virtual bagel fans show it's hard to find out

A BBC investigation has cast doubt yet again on the quality of 'likes' as a realistic metric, highlighting a wider problem with the way we judge value in today's tech business

The quality of Facebook 'likes' as a useful indicator of advertising success on the social network has again been called into question, this time by a BBC investigation that suggests many come from spammy, fake profiles.

The investigation, conducted by BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, involved the setting up of a page for a fictitious UK company called 'VirtualBagel Ltd', along with an accompanying ad. Despite the fact that the page only contained scanty information, it amassed almost 3,000 likes within four days, many of which were from clearly fake profiles of people living in Egypt, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Facebook like
How valuable is a Facebook like?
Security expert Graham Cluley, quoted for the piece on Thursday, said that "spammers and malware authors can mass-produce false Facebook profiles to help them spread dangerous links and spam, and trick people into befriending them", and that many likes come from such profiles.

Cellan-Jones' experiment did not constitute an extensive study (and yes, the ad was poorly targeted), but it was not the first to highlight the 'social spammer' problem. And, as a recent 33Across survey showed , many brand marketers are becoming increasingly concerned about the viability of measuring their campaigns on Facebook.

This matters because advertising is central to the company's future revenues. When people bought into Facebook's glitchy IPO , they were betting on that future. Facebook's 2012 revenue forecast at the flotation was $4.85bn (£3.14bn), but its valuation was $104bn. The value of the company was in what it would supposedly achieve in the coming years.

The two big variables in how that future will play out are advertising and Facebook's mobile strategy . The latter is no sure thing because Facebook is effectively engaged in 'co-opetition' (horrible word, but it fits here) with other platform companies such as Apple and Google — it needs their platforms to run its own, so it has to walk a very fine line there, and it's very uncertain where that line will lead.

But that platform issue is of a kind we've seen before, in the early days of the PC, and in any battle over who 'owns' the customer. Betting on future revenues in a space where it's near-impossible to get accurate measurements of 'engagement' and 'ROI' is a much more modern phenomenon.

Facebook needs to convince advertisers that it is where the money is. Its success or otherwise in doing so will be incredibly important not only for its own investors and ecosystem, but for judging the value of the thing we call, well, 'value'.