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Facebook Searches for the Value of Social Data

Facebook is at it again. The social network recently launched a beta release of its new search engine, Graph Search, posing the question: what value does Facebook’s social data add to search that Google and Bing can’t provide?

“We’ve heard from our users that they expect a better search experience on Facebook,” a  Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “People put so much into Facebook, but until now there have been limited ways to access this information. Graph Search allows you to select the content you want to view on Facebook.”

According to Facebook’s Newsroom, Graph Search runs on search inquiry phrases (such as coffee shops my friends like), rather than key words (such as coffee shops) like traditional search engines. Facebook users can enter queries that fall into the categories of people, photos, places, and interests. The social network then strives to answer these search inquiries within the social network, rather than directing users to an outside source.

“Graph Search is a different type of search to web search,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “Web Search provides a series of links. Graph Search allows you to discover content that has been shared with you on Facebook and is highly personalized.”

Search results are based on the strength of users’ connections to people, places, and interests. For example, if a person were to search ‘people who like The Beatles,’ the results would not only show people who share that same interest, but they also would be ranked based on the strength of the connection, influenced by factors such as how many interactions, similarities, and mutual friends the person searching has with that user. A photo inquiry works the same way. If a person were to search ‘photos with Joe Smith,’ not only would all of their mutual photos appear, but they would be ranked based on engagement factors, such as which photos received the most likes and comments from strong connections.

From a marketing perspective, Jason Hartley, associate media director of digital agency 360i, says Graph Search gives brands a window into what consumers like, and which of their friends like the same thing, that helps identify target audiences.

“As marketers, we’ll be able to have very direct targeting, and for certain types of searches we can then have sponsored ads,” Hartley says. “If you have someone who does a lot of searching, you can create a profile for them. Then, if there are enough people on–[and] one of [Facebook’s] advantages is that [it] has a billion-plus people–you have a nice target audience there you can customize messages for.”

But do these search results answer users’ inquiries accurately? Hartley notes that identifying user’s true friends and decision influencers may pose a challenge for Facebook and could taint brands’ targeting efforts.

“If I have an overly active person that’s just an acquaintance, that can end up spamming my results,” Hartley says.  “When you have a much wider net as you do for Google or Bing, that’s just less likely to happen because there are so many different inputs…and the algorithm is just much more mature. So Facebook will have some growing to do.”

Additionally, to target Facebook users via Graph Search, marketers have to hope consumers use the social network’s search tool rather than instinctively rely on Google or Bing. Hartley says getting Facebook users to use Graph Search frequently could create another challenge for Facebook given typical user behavior.

“Most people are just there to converse with their friends and see what people are up to,” Hartley says. “There are brand pages, and people have certainly embraced that, and there are a lot of great opportunities for marketers out there. But if they can’t get people to use it, then it doesn’t really add much value.”

However, Hartley says consumers have taken the leap of faith and relied on non-search engines before. For example, according to Forrester’s July 2012 Amazon: Friend or Foe for Retailers? report, 30% of online consumers started researching their last online buy on Amazon, versus 13% who kicked off with Google.

Furthermore, Hartley says local businesses may benefit from Facebook’s Graph Search more than their big brand counterparts who don’t need to rely solely on social to get consumers talking about their brand.

“If you have brands who are really working hard to build an audience and keep them engaged, and then you have people who really like your product, you’re going to benefit a lot from people who are making very specific types of searches, which are the ones that are typically the most valuable for marketers,” Hartley says.

Jared Roy, senior director of performance marketing of digital marketing company Webtrends, refers to Facebook shares and likes as “the new SEO.” If a user’s strong connections all like a particular brand, there’s the chance that the same brand will be ranked higher depending on the inquiry. “My recommendation is to take a look at your analytics data for SEO information and translate that to your Facebook page. Marketers should ensure that their Facebook posts and ads are optimized for SEO,” Roy says.  “In addition, the About and Basic Info sections in a brand’s Facebook profile should be optimized for SEO, since those will likely drive [Graph Search] results.”

Bing and Facebook’s relationship status raises a lot of questions in terms of Graph Search. However, Facebook says it will continue to work with Bing. Facebook can recommend search terms for users, which may then activate a Bing web search. In fact, Hartley says he thinks Graph Search will strengthen the two companies’ relationship.

“I think that, just generally, it’s going to be a positive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that they worked on together very closely to maximize both of their inputs.”

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