Blog Post

Can Facebook change the search paradigm?

In the world of search engine optimization, 2012 has been full of talk about the blurring line between search and social. With Big Brother Google unleashing Panda and Penguin to keep black hats in check, the industry has been forced to take a more holistic approach to SEO. Google’s acolytes are now paying attention to other players in the space, and Facebook is suddenly alone in the spotlight.

A Facebook social search engine, which is becoming more of a reality every day, would completely change the way we approach search. As an SEO specialist at The Search Agency, I’ve been closely monitoring this paradigm shift away from indexing billions of pages.

Search and social are merging, and it is clear that Google and Facebook both hope to claim this new territory. Google is actively attempting to take more of the social market with Google+, most recently adding Google+ Local Pages, which forces businesses to create a Google+ business page in order to have control of the Google reviews landing page. It remains to be seen if Google will be able to eat into the social space and win over businesses that have concentrated their social efforts on Facebook.

For its part, Facebook has been very quiet about its foray into search. Rightfully so, because users may not be receptive to the idea of a Facebook search engine. But Facebook isn’t trying to replicate Google’s search engine indexing. Since the company can’t compete with the sheer volume of Google’s more than 8.6 billion indexed pages, it needs to change the paradigm and use its existing social network to approach search with a leaner, smarter eye. If Facebook can develop a social search product that curates good results based on users’ profiles and social graphs, it might be able to compete in the search business.

The following are some of Facebook’s potential advantages in building search functionality.

1. Facebook crawls may be more efficient than Google

Facebook doesn’t actually need to crawl the Web like Google. Instead, it can crawl just the pages that are liked or linked to. Facebook doesn’t have to scan lines and lines of code either. It can crawl just enough to create a snippet and thumbnail, or skip directly to the Open Graph tags.

2. The breadth of Facebook user profiles

Facebook could implement a weighted algorithm that returns curated search results based on a user’s interests, likes, event attendance, in-app activities and social graph interactions. This is all self-identified data given to Facebook willingly by users and is perhaps the most accurate and in-depth user data available.

Meanwhile, Google has to guess almost everything about a user based on a comparatively meager amount of information, including IP location, previous searches, and maybe a Google+ profile. Google is very good at figuring out user data and sometimes user intent, but not always. However, in Googlelandia all searches are weighted nearly equally, because they mostly rely on the actual search term.

3. The Facebook “like”

As Facebook looks to curate search results, a Facebook like can be treated as a vote for a page. By prioritizing all the liked pages connected to a user’s social graph, page load time can be minimized and the most popular pages can be cached to load quicker through selecting which pages are most likely to be clicked. This is very similar to the Google +1 feature, but a Facebook like is a more trustworthy vote and potentially drives a higher click-through rate, because your Google contacts are more removed than your Facebook friends.

4. In-app activities and “Action Links” within the Open Graph

When a Facebook user listens to a song on Spotify or reads an article on the Washington Post’s social reader, this is a strong signal of intent that can affect how Facebook curates its search results. Publishing in-app actions to a user’s friends becomes a valuable vote for that app, song, article, product page and brand timeline. All in-app activity collects valuable user data that can help curate search results.

On Facebook, users generally identify the type of content they share, and this will be even more prominent with the newly introduced Action Links which allows businesses to add additional “action verbs” into the Open Graph structure. The objective is to allow businesses to personalize company pages and product pages. It can drive engagement with this customization and allow for purchases directly from Facebook, such as with an “add to bag” Action Link.

We’re deep in the age of the social Web, and Facebook has been extremely careful to avoid questions about developing a search product and it has tried to drop the word “engine” to avoid any direct competition with Google. Facebook is not trying to replicate search engine indexing, and it has no desire to compete directly with Google’s search engine — only Bing has stepped up to that challenge, and a partnership already exists between Bing and Facebook to power a social complement to Bing’s search results. This partnership further proves that Facebook has no interest in developing an actual search engine, but rather wants to leverage its existing resources and social network to develop a new social search paradigm. It still remains to be seen who will dominate the intersection of social and search. But Facebook is extremely well positioned to edge out Google — if they can figure out how to move users away from the existing indexed search paradigm.

Jessica Lee is a SEO specialist with The Search Agency, the largest independent U.S. search marketing agency with expertise in search, display and social media. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user FindYourSearch.

16 Responses to “Can Facebook change the search paradigm?”

  1. CondoFranca

    lets discuss their monopoly in social first.
    I hope the FTC/SEC blocks Facebook from buying one of its strongest competitors — Instagram. Instagram is a photo based social network that now has 65,000,000 users. its one of the strongest competitors facebook has seen to date. Facebook has network effects. Without network effects Mark and Co. would have had strong competition a long time ago. Instagram is one of the few companies that found a hole in Facebook’s armour through its early jump on mobile platforms. It would be a shame to simply watch Facebook buy away the competition. Do the right thing FTC/SEC and block the buyout. Make Facebook compete.

    • Jessica Lee

      Agreed, social search is still in its infancy and it very limited. But we all had to crawl before we walked, right? I am very interested in seeing how social search evolves and if it can eventually compete with Google’s monster search engine.

  2. Patrick Newbery

    It can mean so many things.

    Perhaps the least relevant meaning is becoming: find the one specific thing that I want but can’t find for myself. Increasingly it means: provide me with a range of information and actions.

    Search is becoming a spectrum of services that help people find information, make sense of it, and determine next steps that are relevant to their individual needs (at that time and place).

    What becomes meaningful here is the context that the user is in and what they are really trying to do. From this perspective, it becomes easier to see that there is no single paradigm that is necessarily better than others all the time. Comparing Google to FB makes for good article writing, although one wonders why not include Amazon or a host of other search interfaces.

    Social context for search is an interesting topic, but it will also quickly reveal it’s own problems (I have different tastes than some of my friends, I have a lot of people in my “graph” that I have never met and have no idea if I share any POV with them, I may need an area of expertise that no one in my “graph” has, etc.)

    When we think about context, relevance, location, social, just-in-time information, we get into some interesting discussions on Search.

    • Jessica Lee

      From Search Engine Watch:
      “Despite not having a true web search engine, 336 million searches were conducted on Facebook in February, which was good for ninth place in the U.S., behind Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, AOL, eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon, according to comScore.”

      I believe that Facebook has more power behind its brand due to its high profile and sheer number of users as compared to Bing/Yahoo/Ask/AOL/eBay/Craigslist. Adding Amazon or any of the other aforementioned sites would definitely be an interesting case study as well, but unfortunately it’s not as compelling as a “Facebook vs. Google” showdown.

      Thanks for mentioning context in search. While Facebook does not have all the expertise that Google does in its pages, Facebook may be better at figuring out a user’s intent. I don’t think Facebook will ever be able to compete with Google’s search engine but Facebook may be able to chip away at Google’s market share. After all, users spend an average of 8 hours a month on Facebook. If it’s convenient to take advantage of Facebook’s search while they’re already there, this could be enough to cut into Google’s dominance.

  3. The problem with social search is that it strictly limits what you’re going to be shown. This, in many instances, can be useful. For example if there’s a band playing that I want to see, and one of my friend’s on Facebook is going to see them – if, with a social search for that band, I was shown the gig my friend is going to quite near the top, it would be very useful.

    But if I’m researching anything, or want to read dissent opinion, then I specifically don’t want social search properties.

    I find myself increasingly using Google in private browsing so that my Google Profile isn’t involved in the process, I doubt I will be the only one to do similarly in the future.

    • Jessica Lee

      I definitely compartmentalize different tools for different parts of my life. I am not going to use Facebook to research, say, house prices in the Los Angeles area. I think that Facebook is becoming home base for a lot of businesses and individuals, and Facebook is also a great starting place to share all your content across your networks. Say a college professor publishes an academic paper. He/she may also post it to his/her personal blog and website then also share it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, etc. That professor needs to have high visibility for the next time he/she applies for a grant or funding, so it would be smart to disseminate the paper as widely as possible. There is no faster way than using your social network. So as more information moves to our social networks I think we’ll find Facebook to be a more central hub for recent and relevant content. BUT – I agree that we’re not there yet.

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  6. I don’t think social search is the best thing out there. There’s a lot useful information outside social network/circle. And that’s why I still use google for searching that information.

    • Jessica Lee

      I think social search is terrible right now. I’ve tried to use Bing’s social search many times to see if I can get good results from my Facebook network, and I’m lucky if I get even 2 social results back. It is indisputable that Google is reigning search engine, but I wouldn’t count out Facebook just yet. With Google trying to take some of Facebook’s market share with Google+, Facebook has no choice but to retaliate. News of Facebook’s search engine has leaked, and as an industry leader we all have to watch and see what happens.

  7. ronald

    How does all the FB magic work?
    Google didn’t only have indexes, there was map reduce and number of citations(page rank)in scientific papers to base it on.
    What theories would FB base its work on?

    • Jessica Lee

      Facebook is extremely hush about the development of its search product. The Open Graph Protocol will be a huge part of their development. Analyzing how users, data, and things are connected will be essential for Facebook.

  8. When consider the horrible user experience of the current search fuctionality of FB’s walled garden, the idea of them as some kind of threat in search is laughable.

    • Jessica Lee

      Facebook has a LONG way to go. But with 800+ million users that willingly self-identify and share intimate information with Facebook and Facebook’s advertisers, that could be a bigger asset than Google’s algorithm that has to guess most of the personal information of its users (unless they are devoted Google+ users with full profiles). Visit and see if Google can accurately guess your data.’