Online businesses face many challenges these days. Internet users are
more sophisticated, and more demanding. And in many markets, they’re
also very social.

Thanks to the popularity and ubiquity of services like Facebook and
Twitter, that means many website owners are compelled to find ways to make their
sites more social.

However, going social isn’t always easy, and it comes with plenty of risks…

Etsy, a popular community-based marketplace for all things handcrafted, is learning that the hard way after introducing a new People Search feature designed to make it easier for Etsy users to interact.

Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng explains:

Etsy had flipped the switch on its new People Search tool last week as part of its effort to make the site into more of a social media platform. When users run a search for a person’s full name, that user’s account will show up in the search results, even if that person is only a buyer. The goal is to allow users to connect to each other and create “Circles,” which then allow users to see which products their friends have marked as favorites or purchased on Etsy.

Problems immediately began popping up. For one, buyers who had entered their full names into their Etsy profiles in the past were not all aware that the information would become public as a result of the People Search rollout. (Etsy claims it notified users, but numerous Etsy users insisted otherwise.) Then, users began noticing that they could easily look up a buyer’s past purchases by searching for their real names, pulling up their profile pages, and examining the feedback left for or by Etsy sellers.

While there can be no doubt that some Etsy users are not happy, according to Etsy’s CEO and COO, much of the outrage is unwarranted and “there is a lot of misinformation being spread“.

Ignoring the People Search functionality which seems to be what has users most upset, they do acknowledge that users who enter their real names could have their purchases revealed, but they also explained their rationale for the change that allowed this to occur: “we believe that markets are conversations“.

When put in historical context, it appears that Etsy, like so many other sites, is looking for ways to become more ‘social‘.

That is understandable. The general trend on the internet is that services are being made more social, both through homegrown features and integrations with third-parties like Facebook. For obvious reasons, many businesses want to jump on the trend.

But is this always a good thing? If you can make a site more social, should you? The answer: not always.

In the case of Etsy, there’s already a vibrant, passionate community that forms a solid base for a promising young business.

Sure, Etsy isn’t a ‘social network‘, but Facebook doesn’t represent the only kind of community that’s possible on the internet. You can build successful communities online without simply adding a sprinkling of standard social networking features. Etsy is already but one example of that.

Naturally, as sites evolve, they should look at the ways new social features can be incorporated. In many cases, these features are a competitive necessity.

But at the same time, the feature mix is more important than the volume of features. For sites that already house impressive communities, the old adage “If it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it” may not be the worst strategy.