It’s inevitable: When, why, and how Facebook will take on Google in search

/// It’s inevitable: When, why, and how Facebook will take on Google in search

October 1, 2012  |  Blog

Facebook and Google have been on a collision course for years, and their competitiveness has only increased with the release of Google+ just 14 months ago. As the service becomes more and more popular, one has to wonder how Facebook feels about the search giant encroaching on its turf. More importantly, one also has to wonder if Facebook has plans to hit Google back where it hurts.

Yet we already know that Facebook is going to be doing just that. In fact, the social networking giant has already started. Three months ago, Facebook updated the grey text on its search bar from just the word “Search” to “Search for people, places and things.”

Two months ago, Facebook added sponsored ads to its search results. While this is by no means as effective as sponsored results on Google, it’s certainly a start. Companies now have yet another way they can spend their ad dollars on Facebook.

This past week, Facebook added searches to its Activity Log. It’s the only type of activity in there that is being added before it can even be shared. Facebook is all about adding social layers to everything on the Internet, and the move suggests the social networking giant may one day let you share your searches with your friends.

Furthermore, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no longer denying the company’s interest in search. At TechCrunch‘s Disrupt conference, he was asked about many things, and search was one that he didn’t make an effort to deflect. Here’s my transcription of his answer regarding search:

“You know, search is interesting. We do on the order of a billion queries a day already, and we’re basically not even trying. Right, so I mean today the vast majority of search is people trying to find people but there are also a meaningful portion of queries trying to find Pages, Brand Pages, other Business Pages, and apps. There’s a bunch of it that actually does kinda link to commercial behavior. I think there is a big opportunity there and at some point we just need to just go do that.

But you know search is interesting. It’s going in this interesting direction. The legacy around search is you get these search engines like Google and Bing and what Yahoo was doing before. You basically type in keywords and the search engine runs some magic to tell you what it thinks the answer is that matches your keyword. But I think search engines are really evolving towards giving you a set of answers. It’s not just like “here, type in something and show me some relevant stuff.” It’s ‘I have a specific question, answer this question for me.”

When you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions people have. 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, 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 queries that you could potentially do at Facebook if we built out this system that you just couldn’t do anywhere else. And at some point we’ll do it. I do think that’s one kinda obvious thing that would be interesting for us to do in the future if we got to a state where we were excited about it.”

As you can see, Zuckerberg says multiple times that search is on his bucket list. He covers the who, the what, and of course the where. Now let’s look at the when, the why, and the how.

When?

I doubt we’ll see anything major show up this year. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no huge search launch next year either.

Zuckerberg is in for the long-haul, and while search is definitely something he’s interested in, I think there are many other areas he wants to tackle first. Getting multiple solid revenue streams down is of course important, but as he has said many times, mobile is his number one priority. That’s why we’re seeing the new schedule for updating apps.

Search is definitely coming. Yet there’s no specific answer to the when question, and here’s why (and how).

Why?

It’s the future. Aside from the “If Google is going to attack us in social, then we’ll attack it in search” argument, I have to agree with Zuckerberg in that social search is where search is headed.

Of course I doubt search engines will ever be replaced by social networks, but the latter will certainly eat into the former. As Zuckerberg muses, the whole point of search engines is to give you answers, and there are many questions that your friends can respond to better than an algorithm.

Therefore, if you can get an algorithm to answer questions based on what your friends say, share, and Like, then you’ll create something worthwhile. If you can create something worthwhile, chances are there’s a way to monetize it.

How?

I think Facebook will be tackling search in many, many stages. There will be days when there are larger announcements than others, but so far it looks like the company will be adding features as they see fit, testing them to see how they’re used, tweaking them accordingly, possibly killing those that don’t work, and then repeating the cycle with the next search feature. This is just how Facebook operates, and I don’t think it will be changing that for search.

There won’t ever be a FacebookSearch.com that you’ll be required to go to. There will just be more and more search functionality added to Facebook.com, as well as features that have nothing to do with search, but that result in you no longer having to search for something.

If I can get in touch with a company via Facebook, then why would I ever need to Google their website? If I can learn everything that I need to know about Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook, then why would I bother to Google him? If I can find a great restaurant to eat at, based on my Facebook friend recommendations, then why would I bother to Google for one?

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