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Facebook showing real potential as a search engine

With the recent improvements to Facebook’s analytics via the new Insights Dashboard, I did a bit of research into the current search volume on Facebook and the evolution of its search.

What I found has seriously made me sit up and consider the potential that Facebook has as a search engine, and how it has changed our online behaviour.

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As Jared Cinman wrote on Memeburn in his article “The End of the Website“, ” The true upheaval wreaked by the advent of both the social and mobile web, to say nothing of the push of digital content into a whole array of other user touchpoints, is that the skin of the website has melted away. To stretch the metaphor, its insides have bled into the community of which it is a part, and that community has seeped in.”

Facebook is ground zero for many of these changes. Over the last year Facebook has more than doubled the amount of searches on its site to over 650 million searches (US figures only). While you may draw the comparison with Google, which still dwarfs Facebook at over 10.5 billion searches in one month, the key factor here is Facebook’s growth, which has doubled during the last year, and the potential of the Facebook social engine that lies behind the searches conducted.

Consider the evolution of search, which started in the early 1990s. Before Google’s existence, search was rudimentary at best and the results produced were a nightmare from a relevance perspective. Search at that stage was mainly focused through portals as the available search engines of the day just didn’t produce results of a high enough standard. Naturally, users flocked to the portals in the hope of not only more relevant results but also because the portals were the main gateway for the online experience.

When Google entered the picture and introduced its PageRank technology – a whole new search market was born that delivered highly relevant and specific search results. Users began moving away from the portals to Google because of the high quality, speed and accuracy of the results. This search experience also allowed the level of searches to mature from one or two word simple searches to more complex phrases. Currently,  the average number of words per search in the US is 3.2 words – when users once searched simply for “cars”, today they are searching for “used BMW cars.”

With this increased level of sophistication and technology, users have adapted their search behaviour to take into account the targeting ability and relevance of the platform.

As with the early days of search, Facebook searches have been averaging only one or two words – which is probably natural considering that people are generally searching for other users by their first and last names.

But judging by recent trends on Facebook’s search volume, people are starting to search beyond people’s names for more generic search terms such as cars, holidays etc.

Todd Dagres, a partner at Spark Capital, was quoted in the New York Times on July 7 as saying, “For every second that people are on Facebook and for every ad that Facebook puts in front of their face, it is one less second they are on Google and one less ad that Google puts in front of their face.”

The evolution of search and the evolution of Facebook in terms of search are very similar to the development and maturity of search terms and relevance.

What Facebook has that Google doesn’t is the base on which the search is built – Google developed from search outwards, while Facebook has developed inwards, from social to search as a natural progression. Obviously you cannot consider Facebook a pure search engine – but it does have the benefit of a sophisticated social platform with the growing ability to connect seemingly non-related topics and people via search on its platform.

For example, if I were to search for “Blackberry” using Facebook, then I would like to see which people in my network or friends are fans of Blackberry or which ones liked the new Blackberry model that can be purchased online etc. The possiblites are endless and the evolution of social search has only just begun.

Facebook still requires a lot of work on the relevance and results of the searches it returns, but by leveraging its partnership with Microsoft’s search engine Bing and the amount of information it has available, it seems reasonable to assume that the future will move increasingly towards allowing people to apply a social filter to their search results.

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