June 3, 2010

What History Tells Us About Facebook’s Potential as a Search Engine

Media Evangelist

The number of searches conducted on Facebook has been surging over the past year, more than doubling to 647 Million searches in the US as of March. While their numbers still pale in comparison to the 10.5 billion searches generated on Google during the same month, Facebook’s footprint in search is significant enough that many in the search community are beginning to sit up and take notice. I continue to hear more and more people ask: Is Facebook on its way to becoming a serious player in the search marketplace?

To evaluate its potential, it is illustrative to consider how search has evolved to the current point in time. Historically, there are 3 primary factors that coalesce to drive change in the evolution of an emerging market: Technology, Marketing, and Consumer Behavior. As each of these factors evolves over time, new developments tend to occur in a symbiotic fashion.

To use a non-internet example as reference, think about Henry Ford’s application of the assembly line to automobile manufacturing (Technology) and the evolving relationship with both Marketing and Consumer Behavior in the United States. Cars begin to be mass produced (Technology), driving down the price for entry and allowing even average citizens the opportunity to become owners and begin driving everywhere possible (Consumer Behavior). In order to address the driving demand, more and better roads/highways are built across the country, and as a result billboards and road side gas stations/shopping begin to pop up (Marketing), which in turn creates more demand, fueling further investments in technology, lowering the price to the consumer even further to bring new consumers into the market. At this point, our driving culture truly begins to take shape and evolve into our relationship with our cars that we have today. The circular nature of these factors influencing one another becomes apparent.

A similar type of evolution can be seen when we look back at the maturation of the search marketplace. The internet becomes widely available in the 1990s and consumers hit the web to consume information, interact socially, shop, and generally run their lives online. As this behavior progressed, marketers of all kinds begin to spend dollars online. Although search engines cropped up in the early days, the quality of results simply weren’t good enough in the beginning to drive people to use search as their main channel for internet navigation, and “portals” became the primary channel for exploration. It’s not surprising given the early quality of results that we tended to search on more obtuse terms such as “shoes” or “news,” which had very little specificity.

With the launching of Google’s PageRank technology, incredibly relevant search results launched a revolution in both marketing and consumer behavior that has forever changed our economic and behavioral landscape. Since this technology pioneered by Google generated more relevant results, searchers began to feel comfortable with extending the length of their search phrases, in effect being more specific about their needs. On top of this developing consumer behavior, this evolution of specificity has encouraged innovation from marketers en masse. Marketer strategy continues to improve with well researched paid search campaigns and increasingly more optimized landing pages to accommodate these longer phrases.

You’ll notice that the average number of words per search in the United States in March was nearly 3.2 words and it has been growing for some time. This is a far cry from our original limitations of “shoes” in order to now search for and find a pair of “nike air jordans.”

What this trend illustrates is that as the technology and sophistication of search results gain, consumers have learned to adapt their searching behavior to reflect the increased specificity the results will convey. This change in behavior enables them to inch closer to a result that reflects the true, original intent of their search. But increasingly there is new information available on the web -- especially as it relates to one’s social graph --that offers potential for even greater specificity; one that filters results through the people, and not just the pages, of highest relevance to you.

As we look at the chart below, we will notice that the average number of words per search at the top search properties has been steadily increasing over the past two years while searches on Facebook contain only two words on average, a trend has not increased in any meaningful way over the past two years. Perhaps these numbers should not be too surprising given that the majority of searches on Facebook are people searches – first and last name. But if you delve a bit deeper into the list of top searches on Facebook, beyond the “first name, last name” searches, you will see that people are beginning to search on more traditional search topics, things like “games,” “shoes,” and “iPad.”

In other words, non-people related searching on Facebook looks somewhat similar to the types of searching we saw during the early evolution of the search engines. If these are the same people who are typing 3+ word searches on Google and Bing, why are they still relying on such rudimentary search terms on Facebook? I think the simple answer is that when people are unfamiliar with a search experience, they prefer to dip their toe into the pool rather than dive in head first. Until they get a better sense of how the engine will respond to their requests, they will continue to keep it simple.

But the fact that we are seeing the first real signs of a burgeoning “traditional” search experience bodes well for the future potential of Facebook as a search engine. I anticipate that we will see this type of consumer behavior evolve along the same lines of traditional search as more dollars flow towards social media.

It will also require further development of the search technology on the part of Facebook. The true promise of traditional search on a social platform like Facebook is the ability to apply a social filter to search results. When I search for “shoes,” I want to see which of my friends are fans of Nike, or which ones “liked” that pair of Pumas being sold on Amazon, or which ones raved on their newsfeed about their comfortable new running shoes. For now there are some options allowing for broad matches to Friend & Everyone posts, but much more can be done.

Facebook must improve their ability to relate your search results, on the first page, to you as an individual. Search engine algorithms do their best to deliver you relevant results based on all of the people that searched on similar terms as you, but Facebook has the unique position with which to analyze your personal relationships and further differentiate results. The Facebook display advertising targeting features are quite impressive, considering factors such as your latest updates, your “likes” and those of your friends…but its ascension as a search property will be directly impacted by its ability to do this same sort of qualitative analysis of you and your entire circle and customizing the search results accordingly. Being that they partner with Bing in order to deliver the web search results, it puts Bing in a strong position from which to innovate using an incredibly large and yet closely personal data set. My ideal Facebook search result page format would be universal in nature, with a collection of the most relevant internal Facebook information combined with appropriately filtered external web results.

As consumers become more comfortable with an inherently social search experience, their search behavior is likely to evolve with it. We will see the average length of their search phrases increase, and it will be driven by both technology innovation and more relevant marketer content before these consumers make the jump.

We are still very early in the evolution of social search, but the nascent search behaviors we see developing on Facebook right now suggest it not only has the potential to become a viable search engine, but in fact has a chance to help redefine the way we currently think of search. The social filter can provide a new layer of meaning to search results, but it will be a matter of technology, marketing, and consumer behavior evolving until we get a true sense of what the future of social search will bring.

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