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Mark Zuckerberg generated some headlines last week by saying that ‘at some point’ Facebook wants to be in the search business.

Speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, ‘The Zuck’ said that Facebook is generating around a billion queries a day already “and we’re not even trying”.

His comments pushed the Facebook share price up by more than 4%. So could Facebook be a Google killer? Is search the answer to its share price malaise?

Facebook certainly has the audience and a billion queries a day, if that’s accurate, is an impressive number. But if it were all about volume of users then Facebook would already be a bigger business than Google.

The reason why it’s not and why it may never be is down to a few obvious fundamentals.

The question of user intent

The first and the most important of these is intent. The intent of users on Facebook is different to those on Google. That’s a simple and obvious fact.

That is the sole reason why Google finds it relatively easy to generate forty billion dollars in revenue every year from its advertising program and why Facebook finds it relatively difficult to achieve one tenth of that.

The audience is the same on both websites, the same people who use Facebook use Google and vice versa. But we use Google when we want something specific and we use Facebook when we’re checking in with our friends (real or imagined).

So user intent changes everything and the challenge for Facebook is that they may find it very hard to ever get around this fact.

Let’s go back to the billion queries that Facebook generates every day. People are looking for people on Facebook. Not products, not services and not brands unless they are pushed or incentivised to do so by other activity, so the queries inherently have a much lower commercial value and, being a walled garden, they will always be several steps from a shopping basket.

Facebook has developed a number of different advertising products but they have to be push, not pull (unlike Adwords) and so it always feels like they are tip toing around their user base trying not to annoy them with too many ads.

Fundamentally Facebook users don’t want ads, they don’t want to be friends with brands and they don’t want to get into a conversation with a washing powder. The click-through rates and eCPMs back this up.

Facebook and search

So Facebook has a fundamental challenge in commercialising its user base, because of their intent.

And it works both ways. Google can’t get its users to engage with its social networking product and despite several attempts, not many of us are forsaking Facebook to create ‘circles’ and have ‘hangouts’ on Google+ with our friends (real or imagined). So is there really an opportunity for either company to eat the others lunch?

And therefore how excited should we as marketers be about Facebook and search?

The Zuck was very careful to point out that if Facebook did move into the search space it would not be with a copycat Google product but it would focus on the space where search is evolving.

It would be a product that would build on Facebook’s strengths of social data and the huge potential of referral and recommendation from people in your social circle or those you trust. He cited an example of someone of getting answer to a question like ‘What sushi restaurants have my friends visited in New York in the last six months – and liked?”

That would be powerful stuff undoubtedly but if you listen to the interview there’s something in there that feels like this is very much a vision rather than anything that is close to being a reality.

Will Google lose any sleep over this? On the one hand its desperate to prove it doesn’t have a monopoly in order to get the regulators off its back so anyone who is big and in this territory is actually pretty good news. Facebook’s plans in search are as much a threat to Google as Google+ is a threat to Facebook - i.e. not very much.

The future for Facebook advertising  

Facebook has an incredible user base and a data set that is perhaps unrivalled in its potential advertising value. Imagine layering the Facebook demographic, location and social data with recent search and other behavioural data sets that we can already integrate through Data Management Platforms (DMP) and Demand Side Platforms (DSP) to laser target your audience?

The privacy issues may mean this potential is never fully realised but recent developments point towards the intriguing prospect of giving Facebook cookie data to retarget users on their platform.

Google and Facebook are advertising funded businesses and in that respect Google will always have a distinct advantage. Google lives much more towards the ‘business end’ of the purchase cycle than Facebook and even its announcement this week that it is to charge advertisers for product listings in Google Shopping and at the same time drop an extra billion dollars of revenue onto to the balance sheet overnight is frankly the stuff of dreams for Facebook.

Facebook IPO’d in May and since then its shares have lost roughly half of their value. From an investor's point of view Facebook could and should have done a lot more to generate revenue. I still hold out hope.

Facebook’s share price is based on the fact that, whatever its mistakes, very few companies are in the position it is in to benefit from cracking some of these challenges.

If we are talking about direct response and I’m being very pithy, I tell my team that Facebook is where you go to find Google users when they don’t want to buy anything. Of course that’s not always true but the fact that it resonates with many people illustrates the scale of the challenge for The Zuck in keeping users, advertisers and investors happy.

Paul Mead

Published 17 September, 2012 by Paul Mead

Paul Mead is Founder & Managing Director at VCCP Media and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter

2 more posts from this author

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Sean Green

Great article. Although social media sites like Twitter more so than Facebook arguably, are regularly used for receiving new information, the search engine market is one that not even Facebook could really compete with. As much personal data that Facebook has on its users, I think monetizing the site this way will not prove effective.

almost 4 years ago

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Danielle Adams

I think their search would have to be based around viral content & popularity. I would certainly use it for this! The user would have the option of opting in and out of being connected as the 'author'... maybe similar to a google +1.

Lots to think about but I can see it working!!

almost 4 years ago

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Ahmed Mallah

Really great article that explain the case from one point of view. Still I believe that you have already given the solution or way out for Facebook in your last Bold statement in last paragraph.

Really enjoyed it and expect Facebook to post their reply :)

almost 4 years ago

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Jnffarrell1

For a start at pruning the social graph Zuckerberg has to find a way (purely private to the user) to record antipathy by view and subject so you can squelch political opinions and 'I just brushed my teeth postings' without dumping otherwise non irritating contact on Facebook.

almost 4 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Facebook is already a 'search engine'. If, that is, you define it (narrowly of course) as a place where you proactively go looking for information, ideas, distraction and social knowledge.

You're right that Facebook has huge volumes of extra data that could be layered over the purchasing/buying experience. The interesting thing is how reliable this data is and how comfortable people would be in having it used and shared.

For example, it's clear that we attempt to manage our social status and image on Facebook. We try and put our 'best profile forward'.

Will people, therefore, be interested in explaining and reviewing products and services that don't support that positive self-image e.g. 'Here's the brand of toilet duck we use. Like!'

What's interesting on Review sites is how anonymous they often are. It's rare (I think) to find a clearly identifiable person on Review sites (one that you could track back to a FB profile etc). This is especially the case when the Review is negative.

Secondly, just look around your office or home. There are probably dozens, or probably hundreds of items within it. Are we expecting our FB friends to review the many things we buy each month/year?

Even with a large FB network, you'll quickly run out of people who've bought, used and are prepared to review the item you're looking to research and buy.

And could a FB search facility ever compete with the type of question you'd ask Google e.g. 'How often do trains to Carlisle run on a Sunday?' I might be able to give you a guess but you'd still need to go directly to the train provider to find out (via Google probably).

Finally, the biggest problem I see for FB is how we, the FB customer base, perceive it and other platforms (in broad terms I know):

FB is for friends.
Google is for information.
LinkedIn is for careers.
Twitter is...well, Twitter just is.

almost 4 years ago

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AJ Kohn

There's certainly a big difference between the intent of users on Facebook versus Google.

Google is all about harvesting intent while Facebook is generally about creating intent. Facebook has spent a lot of time convincing brands that they are a legitimate place for branding campaigns.

Yet, the trends and the money are all still flowing toward companies that harvest intent instead. So Facebook search seems like a no-brainer.

The problem is that changing that user context from social and entertainment to one of information and purchase is not so easy as to offer up a bigger search box.

But that doesn't mean that Facebook doesn't have other means of moving users further down the intent spectrum.

http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/the-future-of-facebook-search

The search we think of now may not be the one that Facebook has in mind (nor even what I propose above). In the end, the question is what changes can Facebook make to change the user context and move them down the intent spectrum, where that big pot of gold sits.

almost 4 years ago

Daniel Phillips

Daniel Phillips, E-Commerce Manager at HJ Hall

It would be good for users if Facebook (or Amazon) provided a challenge to Google in the search arena where Bing is failing to do so.

The 'quality' of Google's SERPs has deteriorated over the past 12-24 months, as its focus has been more on combating 'spam' than actually producing useful and relevant results for users. Unfortunately, users aren't currently 'voting with their feet' as there's no obvious alternative for them to use.

It would probably take someone like Amazon or Facebook to break into Google's stranglehold in search and offer the majority of users a valid alternative.

almost 4 years ago

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Ewald van der Hoop

Thanks for this great article. Although the search on Facebook differs from that on Google, I think it offers opportunities for marketers. I would like to get some information about the search queries.

almost 4 years ago

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Jonny Rosemont, Managing Director at Rosemont Communications Limited

Already pretty much said, the major difference I see between Facebook and Google search is that people use Google to find information or to act (e.g. – to try and buy something) but Facebook users tend to search only for Facebook content.

Beyond this, Facebook search isn’t – in its current form – really that useful, with Google and Bing (which of course partly powers Facebook search) providing a better overall search experience. Unless Facebook dramatically changes its proposition, this situation will remain.

That's not to say there can't be opportunities. Facebook remains stupidly popular and crucially much of this usage is on the go (mobile) - this surely represents something of an opportunity. People have forever ruled out Facebook but its usage means it has to be taken seriously and as others have said it shouldn't just copy Google. That just wouldn't work.

almost 4 years ago

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