It looks like Facebook is finally taking search more seriously. The company is reportedly working overtime on improving its own search feature, which leads us to wonder if it may even have something bigger up its sleeve. We've written about the major opportunities Facebook has to make a big play in the search engine market and go head-to-head with Google several times in the past, and this news does very little to convince us this is not a possibility.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that something like 24 Facebook engineers are working on "an improved search engine," and the effort is being led by former Googler Lars Rasmussen. Interestingly enough, while I was working on this article I happened to get an email from a Googler pointing the report out to me. They didn't say as much, but Google no doubt wants more attention brought to the fact that other major web entities have opportunities to compete with them. The EU is expected to make a decision in an antitrust investigation into Google as soon as after Easter.
Should Facebook create a full-on search engine to compete with Google? Let us know what you think.
Bloomberg cites "two people familiar with the project" as providers of this info. Presumably they are from Facebook itself, as the report says they didn't want to be named because Facebook is in its pre-IPO quiet period. "The goal, they say, is to help users better sift through the volume of content that members create on the site, such as status updates, and the articles, videos, and other information across the Web that people “like” using Facebook’s omnipresent thumbs-up button," the report, co-authored by Douglas MacMillan and Brad Stone, says. Emphasis added.
That last part is particularly interesting, but more on that later.
Facebook's Search Feature
If you use Facebook (and given that Facebook has over 800 million users, there's a good chance you do), you probably know that its search feature isn't the greatest or most efficient tool for finding information. Sure, there are plenty of options to refine your search. You can view results by: all results, people, pages, places, groups, apps, events, music, web results, posts by friends, public posts, or posts in groups. Even still, the results are often unhelpful - even the filtered results.
Given Facebook's enormous user base and all of the content that is posted to the social network every day, a competent search engine is needed badly. Just think how much more useful Facebook would be if you could easily use it to find things. As a business, think about how much better Facebook could work for you if you could better optimize for its search feature, and it delivered your product or service's page to people searching with relevant needs - or perhaps better yet, when their friends are talking about or checking in at your business.
Facebook As A Search Engine
Again, there are a reported two dozen engineers working on improving Facebook's search feature. It sounds like they're really putting a lot of time and effort into it now. If it turns out to be a major improvement and is that useful, competing with Google for searches seems inevitable at one level or another.
Consider the emphasis Google and other search engines are putting on social these days. Earlier this year, Google launched "Search Plus Your World," delivering results much more based on your social circles - particularly your Google+ circles. One major flaw to this approach is that people just aren't using Google+ the way they're using Facebook, no matter how Google chooses to deem a user an active user.
For many people (about 800 million or so), a Facebook search engine would much more closely resemble "search, plus their world".
There are quite a few interesting angles to consider, should a true Facebook search engine become a reality. Would it be available only to users? Facebook has a whole lot of public content. Being signed in would only serve to make the results more personalized - kind of like with Google today - the main difference being that personalization with Facebook data is much more likely to be relevant than personalization based on Google+ interaction. This is not a slight on Google+ as a service. It's just a fact that Facebook has been around for far longer, and has way more active users who engage with their closest friends and family members on a daily basis, sharing tons of photos, videos, status updates and links to web content.
Would Facebook even bother to index the public web the way Google and its peers do? Right now, Facebook uses Bing to pad its search results with web results. Facebook could continue this indefinitely, or it could simply compete with Bing too, somewhere down the road. Facebook doesn't need to index the web the way Google does, however, to put a dent into Google's search market share. Even if it can convince users to use its own revamped search feature for certain kinds of queries, that's queries that users don't need Google for.
I've long maintained that the biggest threat to Google's search market share is likely not the threat of a single competitor, but the diversification of search in general. People are using more apps than ever (from more devices than ever), and just don't have to rely on Google (or other traditional search engines) for access to content the way they used to. Take Twitter search, for example, which has become the go-to destination for finding quick info on events and topics in real time. When was the last time you turned to Google's realtime search feature? It's been a while, because it's been MIA since Google's partnership with Twitter expired last year. Sometimes a Twitter search is simply more relevant than a Google search for new information, despite Google's increased efforts in freshness.
Google may even be setting itself up to push users to a Facebook search engine, should one arise. There has been a fair amount of discontent expressed regarding Google's addition of Search Plus Your World. Much of this has no doubt been exaggerated by the media, but there is discontent there. What if Facebook had a marketing plan to go along with this hypothetical search engine? It shouldn't be too hard for them to play that "search plus your actual world" angle up.
They've already done this to some extent. Not officially, exactly, but remember "Focus On The User" from Facebook Director of Product Blake Ross (with some help from engineers at Twitter and MySpace)?
And speaking of Twitter and MySpace, who's to say they wouldn't support a Facebook search engine, and lend access to their respective social data to make an even bigger, highly personalized social search engine? That could be incredibly powerful.
A conversation between two Business Insider writers would suggest that we won't see Facebook as a "favorite web search engine any time soon," but again, it doesn't have to replace Google to make an impact.
About a year ago, we talked about a patent Facebook was awarded, called, “Visual tags for search results generated from social network information”. The description for that was:
Search results, including sponsored links and algorithmic search results, are generated in response to a query, and are marked based on frequency of clicks on the search results by members of social network who are within a predetermined degree of separation from the member who submitted the query. The markers are visual tags and comprise either a text string or an image.
That's something else to keep in mind.
There's certainly plenty of opportunity to sell more Facebook ads (which are already getting pretty popular with businesses). It's going to be much more about revenue at Facebook in the post-IPO world. Facebook is already superior to Google in terms of ad targeting by interest and demographic, as users can be targeted based on very specific things they have "liked". Add search to the mix, and you also get users while they're actively seeking something out - Google's strong point. That's the best of both worlds.
Facebook won't have to please shareholders by showing that it can be a better search engine than Google, but if they can create a search engine or even just an internal search feature that people want to use, there is a huge opportunity to make plenty of revenue from that. It just may also result in some portion of searches that may have otherwise gone to Google (or Yahoo, Bing, Ask or whatever) to go to Facebook instead, along with more cumulative time spent on Facebook.
Who knows? It may even set the stage for an AdSense-like ad network based on highly targeted Facebook ads. Again, revenue is going to be more important to Facebook than ever after the IPO.
What do you think? Would you use a Facebook search engine as a user? As an advertiser would you consider it an attractive option? How about an AdSense-like ad network for publishers? Share your thoughts in the comments.