Facebook Search - a Rival to Google?
In February this year, Mark Zuckerberg posted this photo to his Facebook profile. Have a look at the MacBook and the Facebook page it displays. Can you make out what appears to be the first sign of a revamped functionality – an elongated search box?
There have been many blog posts and articles written on the subject since. Most make the reasonable conclusion that Facebook’s developments in search, and SERPs, will be limited to the walls of its own site. This is fuelled by strong rumours that appear to stem from within the Facebook camp that say that Facebook is indeed working on a major improvement to its search, and that the project is lead by ex-Google engineer Lars Rasmussen. Rasmussen himself has expressed interest in the past about the link between social media and search.
Some, like the Daily Mail, have gone as far as to say that Facebook is trying to come up with a search engine to rival Google – which is almost certainly not true. What is certain is that Facebook’s priorities to date have not been in search. The existing search function is basic at best, frustrating at worst. A search for a company name gives you a mix of related pages and a jumbled mix of locations, current and ex-staff profiles, website ‘likes’ and mentions.
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A revised Facebook search presumably would sort the results according to the entity it interprets the keywords to be, with results separated into workable categories according to a semantic understanding of why you were searching in the first place.
This kind of semantic search has become a hot topic lately and is seen as a likely future of search. Google’s entity search project is already making waves, and Facebook uses an element of semantics when displaying timelines. Business timelines already bring up a Friends section which includes any recent social updates linked to the page you’re viewing. For example, a glance at Coca Cola’s Facebook page may bring up a status update from a promoter you know about cheap vodka and coke, even though they didn't specifically mention Coca Cola.
We can only assume that Facebook will try and lead the pack on semantic search, and use this algorithm for its internal search developments.
Facebook already makes assumptions about and suggestions for new likes, based on those of your network. What is much more exciting is its potential to rank SERPs using the ‘likes’ of others who are not in your network, but whose listed ‘likes’ overlap with yours.
The user experience
The difference for the Facebook user will be, foremost, a more organised SERP - that’s a given and must be at the top of the list of Facebook’s priorities.
AJ Kohn suggested that the reaches will go beyond the search box to the extent of a ‘more like this’ button or similar that appears with all status updates and takes you to related lists of pages, updates and locations.
Implicit search will come into play. An explicit search simply aims to give you the information you were looking for, whereas an implicit search of the kind that Facebook’s is likely to be will not only give you the result you want but related results that are intended to draw your focus from your original intent.
For example, you may search Facebook for New York hotels because you want to see the sort of comments left on their timelines. An implicit search may also give secondary results for flight providers or currency conversion websites. The purpose of the SERP is to engage you further than you originally intended, again using an element of semantics.
This may be useful to the user – or it may be frustrating. Sometimes you just want to find the information you were looking for, without having to sift through related suggestions.
What’s in it for Facebook?
Developing on-site search results that span a wider range of pages would mean users had less reason to leave the site. Those who would normally turn to Google for online reviews could see social signals from closer to home, i.e. sources they perceive as more reliable.
This means more advertising revenue for Facebook from SERPs and page views.
What does it mean for business SEO?
If Facebook’s new search facility does turn out as the industry expects, then businesses will have no choice but to focus on white hat SEO techniques – relying on good old fashioned (digital) word of mouth for success. Hundreds of faceless links to a business's website will be no good if people are not talking about their services, ‘liking’ products and pages, and sharing their content.
What does it mean for Google+?
If the Facebook search function is revamped as above, it will no doubt be a kick in teeth for Google's Search Plus Your World. Google’s move to social search results depends on its Google+ network, which has been slow to gain the kind of popularity to come close to Facebook. If people are seeking search results with a social context, they may no longer need to turn to Google at all. It’s unlikely that Facebook’s new search function will rival Google for simple information retrieval, but it will certainly be a big player in the move towards social search.
At the very least, developments like these keep the SEO industry fresh and businesses on their toes. White hat techniques such as those taught in our SEO Training Courses are going to be more necessary as search continues to get more sophisticated – and more social.
Thumbs up image via .reid on Flickr
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