What Facebook Learned from Search
Imagine if Picasso painted a search engine results page from Google. It would probably wind up looking like Facebook, which continually draws inspiration from search engines as it rolls out its services for marketers.
What Facebook did was take the classic search channels of paid search, natural search, and paid inclusion and adapt them to its own platform. Compared to search, Facebook's ad targeting isn't quite as precise as advertising to people who explicitly express interest with their queries. Yet compared to contextual advertising, Facebook offers the proposition of targeting to explicitly expressed interests on members' profiles, and marketing is further amplified with the web of member connections often described as the "social graph."
Natural Search: News Feed
The News Feed on Facebook is the differentiator (for now) that makes Facebook best positioned to make great content go viral. In case you've avoided Facebook for fear of learning your colleagues are in relationship situations they can only describe as "it's complicated," the News Feed, which serves as the homepage when Facebook members log in, is an update of what a selection of your friends are doing on the site. You see notices when friends add other friends, post public messages, add or interact with applications, post photos, join groups, and engage in other activities.
The News Feed, updated with 40 to 60 listings per day, parallels search engines' natural search listings and always answers the query "What are my friends doing on Facebook today?" Facebook actually wants to take this a step further, retooling the question to "What are my friends doing online today?" That's the point of Beacon, one of Facebook's newest innovations where select publishers allow consumers to broadcast their actions on those sites to their Facebook profile. When you rent a movie at Blockbuster.com, for instance and you're also logged in to Facebook, you'll see an alert that your movie selection will be shared on Facebook, with an opt-out mechanism available. Some of your friends will then see that in your News Feed, and others will see it when they visit your profile page.
Beacon is one way that marketing messages can appear in the News Feed. Another is when a friend joins a marketer's Page, which marketers can set up for free, or add a marketer's application. The optimization isn't around the News Feed, though; it's around the content, which must be designed to go as viral as possible.
The most striking word that came up repeatedly when I heard someone from Facebook present was "algorithm." It's the algorithm that determines how many stories appear in the News Feed, which users members share connections with, and which types of actions are involved. It knows which friends you're most closely connected to, not just based on how you interact with them, but by factoring in when you and your friends independently interact with the same content. This algorithm might know who your friends are better than you do.
Paid Search: Ad Space
Facebook creatively refers to the area to the left of the News Feed (and any other page) as the Ad Space. The major difference between the Ad Space and paid search is that there's no mistaking that the Facebook ads there are in fact ads. Whether with search ads or even contextual links, it's sometimes hard for consumers to discern where the content ends and the ads begin. Few consumers should have any confusion on Facebook. For more on Facebook ads, see the previous columns on ad targeting by interest and member responses to targeting.
Paid Inclusion: Sponsored Stories
Paid inclusion has served as the hybrid blend of natural and paid search results. With search, paid inclusion links are never labeled as ads, as the engines that have offered this (Yahoo being the longest-standing advocate) have said sites only pay to get included, not to improve their ranking. With Facebook, Sponsored Stories appear in the News Feed and are clearly labeled as sponsored, but they reap many of the same benefits as "organic" News Feed stories. Sponsored Stories also include Social Ads, which appear when a member's friend interacts with an advertiser's Facebook Page or Application.
One of the classic questions with search engine marketing is how to prioritize using natural and paid search. With Facebook, those questions are even more challenging, since it's harder to determine the return on investment (if you get 10,000 people to add your Facebook Page as a friend, what's that worth?) and best practices are just starting to emerge.
The cheapest options are the self-service ads, which can be tested on shoestring budgets, especially when limiting their placement to the Ad Space (running them as Sponsored Stories requires significantly higher bids) and Facebook Pages, which are available for free but must be promoted somehow (Facebook's preference: through advertising). Pages, if done well, also require development resources, just like Applications, and Pages require even more management resources in terms of monitoring comments and updating the page. The immediate goal is to attract more clicks by going viral and appearing in members' News Feeds. The process shares much in common with search engine optimization.
Facebook draws inspiration from search engines and how marketers use them, but Facebook's not trying to be Google. Google, after all, is best at sending its users to other sites. While Facebook can do that with Beacon, it is much more interested in drawing its members deeper into Facebook and emerging as the newest portal.
So who is Facebook trying to be? Can you think of any portals that became a major name in search while experimenting with their social media strategy, one that still offers paid inclusion, and one that, like Facebook, is repeatedly rumored as a takeover target for Microsoft? That's the company that needs to worry about getting outfoxed by Facebook's algorithm.