Mark Zuckerberg took the stage last week at Techcrunch Disrupt to discuss all things Facebook, including the inevitability of a true Facebook search engine. It was the piece of information that most technology writers gravitated towards; even the stock price took notice (Facebook shares rose more than $2 per following the Zuckerberg interview).
Zuckerberg noted, among other things, that Facebook currently processes “1 billion queries a day” without really attempting to productize a search capability. He goes on to say, “Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the last six months and Liked? Or which of my friends or friends of friends work at a company that I’m interested in working at -- because I want to talk to them about what it’s going to be like to work there. These are questions that you could potentially do at Facebook if we built out this system that you couldn’t do anywhere else. And at some point we’ll do it. We have a team working on search.”
Why is the promise of a Facebook search engine so exciting to users and shareholders alike? After all, we have already seen social search emerge across Google and Bing results; authenticated users are presented standard search results with a social filter applied, indicating content and domains that have been shared and liked by friends. What can Facebook do internally that Bing cannot with a Facebook data overlay?
As I see it, the opportunity is for Facebook to create the ultimate social discovery tool. Given its access to a data set unrivaled in its social depth and richness, Facebook can legitimately rival Google for a broader share of the search market. I see three essential components for this opportunity to come to fruition:
1) Social discovery on-demand – If Facebook’s mission is to facilitate a more open world through its ubiquity and environment of “frictionless sharing,” then what better way than to empower social discovery on-demand rather than relying on what’s pushed to users’ News Feed and Ticker? The possibility of having complete freedom to explore every crevice of the Open Graph is very intriguing. This would require a hefty engineering effort, but making everything users have shared via Facebook (adhering to users’ privacy selections, of course) searchable with specificity, at any time and across any device, would be the ultimate killer app.
It might even help reverse the recent decline in user engagement across the site.
2) Degrees of separation from people, brands, and sentiment – One of my favorite features of LinkedIn is the ability to see degrees of separation from individual users or employees of select companies. Facebook could similarly demonstrate via search the degrees of separation from individuals, friends who like certain brands, or sentiment (Zuckerberg’s sushi restaurant example).
Imagine being an amateur photographer planning a trip to the Grand Canyon. Having the ability to search for friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, etc., who have ever uploaded pictures taken from a trip to the Grand Canyon would be incredible. You could then connect with those people for recommendations on the most scenic spots ahead of your own trip. Undoubtedly new friendships would be born out of those types of exchanges too – further enhancing the social appeal to Facebook overall.
3) Search by Open Graph Expression – Open Graph Apps are still relatively new, and Facebook seems content for now to focus its promotion on games and media apps, but the potential here is immense. As more applications enter the App Center with unique expressions beyond the “Like,” the potential to query against user activity plus unique Open Graph Expression (e.g. discovering that “Ryan ‘Wants’ iPhone 5,” rather than “Ryan ‘Likes’ iPhone 5”) would enable a much richer search experience.
In my above example, friendswho are also contemplating phone purchases in the near future could solicit my opinions on which phone is best, and how I arrived at my decision to “want” the new iPhone.
The idea of a fully baked Facebook search engine should also whet the appetites of those in the advertising community. Greater access to Facebook’s data set -- both what exists today and what will exist in the future -- could prove to be exactly what marketers need to better understand how social advertising functions in tandem with more traditional channels.
Search may be exactly what Facebook needs: an enhancement that simultaneously improves the user experience and the company’s attractiveness to advertisers.