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Watch out, Google — Facebook’s social search is coming

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During an interview at the Disrupt conference on Tuesday — the first since Facebook’s (s fb) underwhelming IPO and subsequent stock slide — co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked a lot about the social network’s strategy in a number of areas, including a defence of the company’s approach to mobile and an explanation of why the company moved away from HTML5 for its apps. But while those comments were interesting, I thought the most revealing part of the interview came when Zuckerberg talked about search. Although he didn’t go into a lot of detail, it was clearly intended as a shot across Google’s (s goog) bow: the underlying message was that Facebook is going to do social search, and soon — and it already has most of the ingredients necessary to mount a significant challenge to the search giant.

In response to a question from TechCrunch (s aol) founder Mike Arrington about whether the company plans to do anything in the search market, Zuckerberg said that the social network already handles about one billion search queries every day, “and we’re basically not even trying.” For comparison purposes, that’s about 20 times as many as Microsoft’s Bing search engine gets — and about a third of the 3 billion queries that Google handles every day. But it’s not just about volume: the critical factor is that Facebook’s searches are all about finding socially relevant information, from people to brands and related topics. As he put it:

“Search engines are really evolving towards giving you a set of answers… like, I have a specific question, answer this question for me. And when you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have. That’s one obvious thing that would be interesting for us to do in the future.”

To give just one example, the Facebook CEO said a question might be something like: “What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York, and liked?” This is the kind of answer that Google simply isn’t very good at providing — or at least, not yet. It can show you sushi restaurants within a few miles of your location, and it can show you ratings from Yelp and other services to help you choose, including reviews from its recently purchased review providers Zagat and Frommer’s, which are starting to show up in the “one box” results for restaurants. But it can’t really show you which ones your friends like, unless they all happen to be on Google+.

Google+ is no match for Facebook on social data

Coming up with that kind of socially-relevant data was the whole purpose behind the launch of Google+. It wasn’t that Google wanted to give people a place to share cat photos — it was a way of getting lots of people to create profiles and add friends and interests, and thereby generate a ton of data that would make it easier for the search giant to target advertising, and also help add social elements to its search results. The biggest problem with the “Search Plus Your World” feature is that it primarily shows you content from Google’s network, and whatever it can scrape together from the two networks that make up the bulk of people’s online social lives: Facebook and Twitter.

Like Facebook, Google knows that search is moving from keywords and links to providing answers for users to questions such as “Where should I eat?” and “Who can repair my car the best?” That’s why the company has been spending so much time and effort adding expert information from places like Wikipedia and from its own sources like Zagat. But that isn’t social data, and while there has been plenty of debate about the ultimate value of social recommendations, there’s no question that Facebook has a far better grasp of that than Google. And unless Facebook and Twitter choose to change their blockade of the search engine, it is likely to stay that way.


As venture investor (and eBay staffer) Chris Dixon pointed out in a tweet about Zuckerberg’s comments, the point of the Facebook CEO’s remarks wasn’t that the network plans to do search in the same way that we think of it now — by slapping a search box from Bing (s msft) or Google on the page. Instead, it wants to provide a whole different aspect of search, one that is oriented around a user’s social graph and the connections between them. With close to a billion users, and more than five billion actions involving status updates and likes and all of the other activity that occurs on Facebook every day, that is a massive data set with which to triangulate a user’s interests.

Whether Facebook is going to be able to do this while it is also trying to advance a mobile strategy and reinvent advertising and all of the other things on its plate is an open question, and so is the effect that moving into the social-search arena would have on the company’s relationship with Microsoft, which provides its own social search via a partnership with the social network. But if anyone has the resources to reinvent search for the social age, it is pretty clearly Facebook — and that could be Google’s worst nightmare.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Abysim

21 Responses to “Watch out, Google — Facebook’s social search is coming”

  1. It used to be Yahoo and Google and now, I think this would be the start of war between Google and Facebook. :) Personally, I do think it would be long before there would be a site that can match up to what Google has. They have remained on top for years and that couldn’t be taken in a snap. I always have my Facebook account open but now, it seems to bore me up a bit since it’s the same dose of stuff each day. Well, we’ll see if Facebook can reign over the undisputed number 1. :)

  2. I made the mistake of downloading their stupid ad for knowing who has unfriended me and it locked up my computer. Not a great product and now I cant seem to get rid of the toolbar it downloaded that I did NOT request. Pain in the bottom for sure. I am so ready to LEAVE facebook. Not worth the hassle if this is Mark’s idea of a great app.

  3. seowestcp

    Interesting article – I suppose its been a long time coming and will be a while before we see it… if he intends it to be some kind of standalone domain or more likely an extension / revamp of the current search box.

  4. Joel Davey

    Searching what though?, Facebook doesn’t have any content from a business pov if your searching for people or companies you use LinkedIn. Facebook would need to have an easier more open way of creating content.

  5. What I find surprising about Google is how it’s slowly turning into a problem solving machine. Rather then spilling out a bunch of links it displays the result of the query directly. For example search “weather in Paris”

  6. This is saying “Get ready Ferrari – I just built a pinewood derby car!”

    Google’s been doing search since Zuck was in junior high; it’s not like he’s going to suddenly destroy their near-stranglehold on the market by making it easier to factor my social circle into my searching (which inspires little more than ‘meh’ in me).

    Can’t wait for inevitable the privacy furor when someone uses Facebook’s social search for “what STD antibiotics are my friends taking?”

  7. Robert French

    I’m not so sure it is nonsense. If Facebook opens up search in a way that allows for identifying users via keywords … how could that not be a huge game changer? Right now there are some ways to accomplish this (to a degree) … but, if Facebook gets it right and the average user has access without having to use any of the paid options then it is a game changer.

  8. I don’t think Google has anything to worry about from Facebook. Facebook will shrivel into nothing long before Google ever does. Google is a long-term strategist and Facebook simply has no strategy other than to try and copy other people’s ideas and develop them in an inferior way.

    Long story short…Facebook doesn’t PRODUCE anything and will go by the wayside, like Compuserve, AOL, ICQ, DIGG, and the old BBS’s. You can’t measure Facebook’s market value, because it has nothing of value to offer an investor. It’s just the latest club, bar, or restaurant that people frequent, until it goes out of fashion because it has nothing to offer you other than a place to hangout and see what other people are doing. And I can do that anywhere.

    • Facebook has a lot of data, which (if good data) is quite valuable. But as far as an investment, you’re closer to the mark; they aren’t sustainably innovative and FB share price will eventually settle in around 17 EPS.

  9. whats social search means ? search by names ? you think google that gets over 50M visits a day cares about FB’s broken name search feature. Or FB is really going to try to index the whole word to compete with google.

    non-sense article for the ones who has time to read….

  10. Not too long ago, when Google introduced G+ data into their search results, Mathew Ingram, the author of this article was one of the most vocal critics at Gigaom of those attempts by Google. Now, that ‘social search’ is being discussed in the context of Facebook, Google has to ‘watch out’ and this could turn out to be ‘Google’s worst nightmare’. Clearly, when it comes to Google and social, it is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Or, may be this writer would be happy if Google simply gave up on social.

    • Aimee Joseph

      No – you couldn’t be more wrong. The reason why Matthew is pro Facebook when it comes to social search is because Facebook already has a HUGE network filled with people & their friends, where people spend hours daily.

      Google+ don’t.

      It isn’t a case of pro Facebook – anti Google. It’s a case of Facebook being able to take advantage of what they have already got.