Facebook social search has always been a popular mythology for the company. The story goes something like this: huge company collects social signals and personal data from most of the planet’s citizens and is able to satisfy your every need with an unprecendented degree of accuracy and personalization.
When comments intimating the genesis of Facebook social search were attributed to Mark Zuckerberg this week (from an interview with TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington at the Tech Crunch Disrupt), futurists everywhere started to lament the demise of Google and laud Facebook’s CEO for his vision. As it turns out, maybe people are overreacting a bit….
Mark Zuckerberg said what?
There was a lot of interesting stuff printed about the talk, some of it conflicting, some of it inaccurate.
A “transcript” of the talk from Forbes: “We do on the order of a billion queries a day, and we’re not even trying. Most of it is people trying to find people, but a bunch does link to commercial behavior like trying to find brand pages. You get these search engines where you type in keywords and it runs some magic to tell you what it thinks you want. But I think search is evolving to provide specific answers. Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer most of the questions people want to ask. Like “What restaurants do my friends like?…We have a team working on search. When I said we weren’t trying, I was being facetious. It’s one obvious thing for us to do (more) in the future.”
From multiple sources: “CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that Facebook has every intention of giving Google a run for its money by marrying social networking with one of the most valuable areas of the technology industry: Search”
From Reuters: “Zuckerberg’s comments, the clearest signal that Facebook is eyeing one of the Internet’s most lucrative markets at a time when its own advertising revenue growth rates are slowing, helped shore up the company’s battered shares.”
It turns out that there is a lot of conjecture and misinformation about what was said. The important search answer was one question lasting no more than a minute. So, I went to YouTube and transcribed Zuckerberg’s thoughts on Facebook social search myself (video is embedded below):
“You know, search is interesting. We doing along the order of a billion queries a day and we’re basically not even trying, right? So today search is, the vast majority of it is, people trying to find people, but there are also a meaningful portion of queries which are people trying to find pages, brand pages, other business pages and apps, so there’s a bunch of it actually does kind of link to commercial behavior. And um I think there’s a big opportunity there at some point and we just need to go do that. But you know search is interesting. It’s going in this interesting direction the legacy around search is you’ve got these search engines like Google and Bing and what (garbled, something about an algorithm) before that basically you type in keywords and um, the search engine runs some magic to tell you what it thinks the answer is that matches you keyword. But um I think that search engines are really evolving towards giving you a set on answers right? So it’s not just like here I’m going to type in something show me some relevant stuff. It’s 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. You know what sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the past six months and liked, which of my friends or friends of friends have worked at a company that I’m interested in working at because I want to talk to them about what it’s like to work there. These are queries that you could potentially do with Facebook if we built out this system that you just couldn’t do anywhere else. and at some point we do. We have a team working on search…. When I said we weren’t trying, I was being facetious. There is an ongoing effort to make sure people can find friends. That’s one obvious thing that would be interesting for us to do in the future if we were excited about it.”
From that (And the other 30 minutes of the interview), Google’s stock rose. Which led me to say….
Really? Facebook social search as a revolution?
It struck me that Zuckerberg wasn’t proposing a new search engine, but a new way to search. Ask Jeeves for the new millenium. That said, the basic tenent of his argument is that the collective experience of a small sample of people (Facebook friends, friends of friends) is more informing than a broader collective experience. Qualitatively, I think there’s the fundamental flaw in that argument (logistics notwithstanding).
We live in an information poor society. We rely on search as the primary means to navigate through the noise. The argument that there is a revolutionary way to approach search that has never been considered before sounds like a bunch of hype.
If New York Sushi restaurants that your Facebook friends liked, and 2nd degree business connections are your idea of a search revolution then believe the hype. In that framework, it almost sounds like a regression for search instead of a revolution.
Newsflash: all things are not equal.
Think for a minute about all things being equal. If Facebook search could be as good or better than Google or Bing they would need one thing to get there: money. Bing may be the most relevant comparison, and they lost $4 billion dollars (give or take) in 2011. My best guess would be that when Zuckerberg says, “if we were interested in it” he really means if they were willing to spend money on it. And though Facebook has a tremendous amount of cash on hand, with almost two billion outstanding private shares that could potentially come into the market in the next year, with Sheryl Sandberg potentially leaving to be a part of Obama’s cabinet if re-elected, with the stock still in flux, it doesn’t seem like they are well-positioned to undertake search.
And the other part that many people are leaving out about Zuckerberg’s comments were the caveat when asked about whether he had engineers working on search:
“There is an ongoing effort to make sure people can find friends.”
Zuckerberg wasn’t copping to having a team of developers working on Facebook social search, he was saying that they were working on Facebook’s organic search within it’s content.
The other thing I’d point out is Bing’s struggle to leverage social signals into their search. With access to both Facebook and Twitter, Bing doesn’t do a great job with personalized results. That said, I don’t know that it is entirely Bing’s fault – the social signals such as Likes and follows may not create the most encompassing digital snapshot of ourselves. Search on the other hand may give stronger preference signals. The possibility that search cues are most telling preference signals could give a decided, increasing advantage to Google’s Knowledge Graph over Facebook’s Open Graph.
Facebook social search becomes the most widely adopted imaginary search engine in history.
One of the most humorous reports was of a “study” done by a digital SEO agency that concluded that Facebook social search would immediately capture 25% of the search market building to 50%. In other words, Facebook could put a big flaming bag of fecal matter on the internet, label it “search” and dominate.
The report is actually a really fun read, like a great piece of satire from the Onion. Consider this from the preface:
“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”
And then they proceed to ask people how likely they would be to adopt an imaginary Facebook search engine. And then published the results.
I would be phenomenal at research of this kind. For instance:
When the equine genetic code is altered to allow development of an elongated appendage horn, how likely would you be to use unicorns in lieu of horses for your animal travels?
Don’t laugh – the answer might surprise you. If unicorns were real, 25% of people would switch tomorrow and up to 50% would switch in a few years.