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A Facebook Search Engine: Will We Ever See One?

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In the online marketing world, 2013 has ushered in a bevy of updates quicker than you can whisper “AskJeeves”. So far, marketers have been presented with an updated Facebook Graph Search Beta (January 2013) and the pending transition towards Adwords Enhanced Campaigns for all ads on Google. If your head is spinning, you’re likely not alone.

All of these changes got me to thinking about the current search ecosystem. Inevitably, I keep coming to the same question. When will Facebook stop kidding themselves and launch a standalone search platform? Sure, the new Graph Search may have marketers buzzing today, but it still feels like more of a curiosity than a long term solution to the Facebook marketing dilemma. Each time Facebook launches a new ad group, the same cycle seems to occur. First, it’s great (Have you heard of sliced bread? It’s BETTER!), then it is downgraded to “good”(but still better than Google), followed by “Hey look, Facebook is introducing something that is even better than______ (insert Deals,Gifts,Mail,Places,etc.)”

Graph Search is a step in the right direction, but may be too small a step. In case they haven’t noticed, Facebook is not going to replace the Internet (although they did almost break it recently) with their platform. In discussing with my colleagues, the consensus is that many users are slowly becoming more and more disenchanted with Facebook as a platform. Bored, even. Feeding ads into the stream, as well as alongside it, is more likely to drive away users than to make them think “Hey, I should shop here.”

It’s a problem of intent:

The opinion that no one goes to Facebook to shop has been beaten into the ground. There is some truth to it, of course, but the real issue facing increased ads is that Surfers using the search bar traditionally use it to browse places they’ve previously liked, or to reach out to one of their many contacts. Anyone with more than 50 friends on Facebook knows this is the easiest way to sort through your friends list. Users accustomed to navigating their Facebook accounts via this bar are not looking to buy. Adding a layer of ads is more likely to annoy that inspire purchases, and could actually result in increased invalid “mistake” clicks.

It’s a problem of poor SERPs:

Facebook locks everything down, even enclosing their SERPs within these social media accounts. The navigation could be cumbersome, at best, and presents a new set of issues. Specifically, how will Facebook justify sponsored ads outranking the actual entities you want to reach? If a user’s goal is to visit Target’s Fan page to take advantage of an offer on televisions, how will Kmart, Sears, Best Buy, HHGregg, and others ranking above the page I made a conscious effort to “like” be explained? Bidding against your competitors terms is acceptable(barely) in SEM. The practice would, however, actually diminish the value of the “like” long term. This is a win for Facebook, not their users.

It’s a problem of accuracy.

Marketer’s are enthralled with the possibilities Graph Search presents. Imagine a world where people liking your brand actually results in measurable conversions right from within Facebook. Social Media Professionals, rejoice!

Still, I can’t help but thinking about some of the “likes” I have in my account. Friend’s businesses, movies I’ve seen, Mountain Dew…I’m not to sure how much value my “likes” would provide to an advertising campaign. The there is what I like to call the “Wishful Thinking Effect” of Facebook. Consider those friends/relatives/people who owe you money that tend to “like” the finer things in life. Good luck trying to sell a Cadillac to the guy who drives a 1989 Chevy Cavalier!

Try as we might to look for the “next big thing”, Facebook would be wise to take a page for how Google is leveraging the social data they get from their Google+ users. They aren’t feeding ads down their throats. Instead, they are using this data to make their search product better. Google has also managed to make their services a passive participant in all things web, quietly collecting data while running in the background when you inevitably forget to sign out of Gmail, YouTube,Google+, etc. Ironically, the student may have already become the master.

A Facebook Search Engine, preferably not branded as Facebook, would address the first two issues straight away. People some to search engines for information, to research, and, yes, to buy. A search engine powered by this graph data will present a shot across the bow to all current search platforms, and an increase in earnings would quickly follow. Competition is a good thing, and the time for Facebook to throw down the search gauntlet is at hand. Maybe they buy Bing. Perhaps Yahoo is willing to sell their paid search operation to Zuck. Either way, the team at Facebook has the volume, data, and following to present the first serious challenge to Google that anyone has seen in this lifetime.

Will we ever see a Facebook Search Engine? That’s the billion dollar question.

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