Could Facebook Search Really Change the Balance of Power on the Web?

Facebook will launch a new search service
Let’s begin what’s going to be a contentious article with two irrefutable statements: 1. Google has become synonymous with search, even lending its name as a verb to describe the act of searching the web. 2. Facebook search sucks.

 

Anyone even remotely familiar with the world’s largest social network knows that it’s next to impossible to find yourself there let alone anything of value. Despite that fact Facebook serves 1 billion queries a day (yes, even I have tried search there knowing full well I would get frustrated) and Facebook does have more than a seventh of the world’s population in its membership base and it’s still growing.

Facebook Search ImageOn the web you’d expect size to be as important as everywhere else, but it’s not really size that’s important. It’s data. And a billion members evidently asking one query each a day, while laughable compared to Google, is still a sizeable chunk of data to possess.

The reason we are discussing all this is because Facebook, in its desperate efforts to monetize itself and deliver shareholder value to its investors really has little choice but to go down the one path it should have gone down from the start and that’s search. Search is how we navigate the web and search is what adds meaning to the vast amount of data that is accumulating. Right now Google is the undoubted winner in this field but that may not last forever.

Before we even see how the balance of power may change with one swift stroke (so to speak) let’s discuss why this has not happened already.

Facebook’s Social Graph is not Search Friendly

Facebook’s social graph which accumulated data relating to friends’ likes, dislikes, hobbies and interactions never supported disambiguation. Disambiguation in search uses a process that involves interpretation clusters to define the meaning of phrases. Google’s search does that because its search index supports it. Facebook’s doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that Facebook does not know this. Its complete change of programming and the change from its social graph to its new Open Graph was a step in this direction. For those who think that it’s just a case of programming it’s good to be reminded that building a good search engine is difficult. Microsoft has spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in experiments, development and acquisitions and BING is still a poor second to Google.

Not only that but running search costs Microsoft $2.5 billion a year which they lose right off their bottom line. As a matter of fact had Facebook (and Microsoft) had much sense they would have worked out a deal where Facebook bought BING, made it the de facto search in Facebook and worked out a part cash part shares deal.

For less than the amount which Zuckerberg plonked down for Instagram (only to bring out a similar Facebook app just two weeks after its purchase) Facebook could become a creditable player in search, offering a real alternative to Google and have changed the search marketing landscape forever. But business is not just about sense.

There is pride, reputation and ego riding on every decision. Microsoft refuses to believe that it has been beaten in search, so it continues to bleed money off its bottom line and Zuckerberg, having once warned Google not to even dare attempt building a social network because it would have to be built “from the ground up” rather than imposed from the top down, is now having to come to terms with the success of G+.

So Where Does That Leave Us with a Facebook Search?

Well, it’s coming. Here are the signs one by one:

  • Facebook’s IPO has put the company under pressure to produce money.
  • Facebook’s Q3 earnings were flat leading to a huge drop on the share price.
  • Facebook has been trying out a number of seemingly desperate monetization strategies including Facebook Gifts, sponsored stories and retargeted ads.
  • Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has stated that search is an area they are looking at.
  • Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg made similar comments regarding search on CNBC

A somewhat limited Greenlight Digital Survey suggested that a Facebook search could get a 22% share of the search market straight from the start (take this with a massive pinch of salt. The survey was worded in a very specific way and it was limited in numbers. The PDF can be downloaded here).  Such talk however makes both Facebook investors and Facebook execs sit up and take notice.  

Bitly Realtime SearchNow, it has to be said that just because a product is coming it does not mean it’s going to be any good. Doing search well, beyond competent programming and a decent way of sorting out relevancy of results and quality (all of which Google has been addressing repeatedly, exhaustively and tiresomely –for SEOs- this year) also requires focus on the end-user. Search, at its core, is empowering.

If you are the one providing the service you basically build an aircraft carrier that can turn on a dime and place its control in the hands of Joe Public. To understand the importance of this consider that Microsoft which in many ways brought innovations into search that forced Google to double-time and react (Google Caffeine as well as Google Instant and Google Social Search were direct responses to Microsoft Search developments) has failed to engage the public because the company is so focused on enterprise.

Facebook has never been customer-centric. From endless tales of summarily despatching accounts based on the flimsiest of evidence of wrongdoing to countless examples of change fostered from the top down in a take-it-or-leave-it approach, it has proved that it has not outgrown its collegiate, I-dictate-to-sophomores philosophy.

That is a serious stumbling factor which is hard to overcome. Company culture is always diffuse and hard to address because it first has to be acknowledged as being part of the problem.

It’s All About Search

That does not mean that a Facebook search is not a threat to Google. If it is halfway decent it will be used (heck, the current one is and it …well, sucks!). Search that’s used begins to become part of habitual online behaviour and that (as Microsoft has discovered when it comes to Google) is really difficult to combat.

Search however is big business. In a web that’s growing by some 250,000 websites a day, it has become the only way we can find anything. And because search is about data, its organising, indexing and handling, everyone who has some data wants to get in on the act.

Bitly, for instance, wants in. There is a suspicion that its acquisition of Digg is because it’s really heading that way. And the announcement of its RealTime Bitly Search experiment is so that it can begin to get a handle of search on the web. Foursquare, recently launched its own search and then opened it to all users not just those who are logged in, creating what is now yet another search vertical.  

So, where is it going to stop? Given the fact that search is a service we are all so familiar with that we hardly even need to think about it, it will get worse in terms of players and fragmentation. Amazon and Apple want in on the act and, like Facebook, they are sitting pretty on a horde of data they desperately want to monetize. Unlike Facebook they both get search in a fundamental way (Amazon a lot more than Apple, it has to be said) which means that when they bring it out officially it will be a much more powerful Google competitor than a Facebook search might be.

Al of this though will erode some of Google’s search might. Some. The reason the damage will be limited is because Google is evolving already. From the one-trick pony Wall Street analysts derogatorily called it in 2011 the company has become an ecosystem with its own OS, its own hardware (sort of) and the kind of brand pull other companies can only dream about.

Google has always been adept at playing a psych game where it offers seamless integration, great ease of use and convenience. That plays on the hearts and minds of users much more than brand because it becomes ingrained psychological behaviour. The question with Facebook is whether it will manage to change its current culture and become more sensitive to the end-user's needs and concerns (including privacy where Facebook has an abysmal record) or will it succeed in becoming yet another search bit-player, like Microsoft.

The year ahead is clearly going to be a fascinating one.

What You Missed

Facebook’s IPO May Unravel Its Service
Bitly to Launch its Own Search Service
The Changing Landscape of Search Engine Marketing
Bit.ly Acquires Digg in Strategic Move
Get Your Content in Google Currents and Reach Mobile Device Users
Personalized Search Results Make Social Media Crucial
Could Facebook Buy BING?

External Links

Facebook Gifts
Facebook Retargeted Ads
Foursquare launches its own search engine
Bitly announces RealTime Bitly search

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