How Facebook Will Succeed in Search

This article was published as a guest post at AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

In August 2011, I went out on a limb about Facebook’s strategy for search. Search is a feature every Web user needs—and by knowing its users so well, Facebook has some incredible and unique ways to change the game. But at the same time, it would be a losing proposition for Facebook to compete head-to-head with Google. Still: I predicted Facebook will enter search by the end of 2012. As the news bore out on January 15, 2013, I was off by two weeks.

As close as that timing was, when it comes to how they will enter, I was dead right: Rather than going head-to-head with Google, I said it would focus exclusively on where your graph is far more valuable than even the best redux of the entire web.

But now that it has announced its beta launch, the question is, what does it need to do to get it right? Here are five important things Facebook should keep in mind in order to succeed in search:

1. Keep expectations low. If there’s one thing Facebook hopefully learned from its IPO, it’s that it’s far better to set expectations low and exceed them than to sell high and disappoint. Any user who types a day’s worth of typical web searches into Graph Search is going to walk away with one conclusion: Facebook’s new product is terrible at most of the things that Google has taken 15 years to be great at. Users who have a bad experience rarely give you a second chance.

2. Meet users where they are. One huge red flag is Facebook’s bent to “diseducate” users from their “bad search habits.” Oh, the attitude of it! But worse than attitude, it’s a bad recipe. Consumer products and Web services have taken off by presenting people with experiences they love, and offering an interface that they like and naturally adapt to. Facebook needs to adapt to its users’ searches, not the other way around.

3. Reopen Open Graph. Back in September 2011, Facebook came out guns blazing, ready to work with the rest of the Web to fill in the graph with more user information, connections, and actions. At the time, the promise was that websites and publishers who connected to the graph would give Facebook great information, and get Facebook viral traffic love in exchange. But unfortunately, with its decisions to pull back from social readers and so-called “frictionless sharing,” Facebook dropped its end of the bargain, and most publishers and other sites have given up on it. The catch now is that Facebook needs that information desperately—or else far too many searches will come up empty. Facebook needs to reconnect with the rest of the web—and if it doesn’t, then Graph Search will quickly hit a ceiling.

4. Give users a great reason to participate. One of the reasons that Open Graph didn’t go so well for Facebook is that users wanted out of their own unbalanced equation: Facebook got greedy and started posting users’ actions on the feed—whether the users wanted it to or not. What it forgot to do was work on the “WIIFM”—what’s in it for me? In the new world of Graph Search, it’s clear that my “likes” benefit my friends and friends of friends. But Facebook needs to come up with better experience enhancements that will help me. The good news is that search can open up a whole world of possibilities. The restaurant I just found on Facebook desktop search should be primed for navigation directions on my mobile—and then as a check-in destination when I arrive. Whether it’s a like or another action, give me reasons to tell you what’s important.

5. Expand the wedge. Developing Graph Search couldn’t have been easy — even in its initial builds that have supported relatively specific and small sets of queries. But the key to whether it succeeds will not be in which searches it works well for at launch, but rather the rate at which that set expands. Facebook just inserted the “thin edge of the wedge” into the search pie. Now it needs to steadily—daily, weekly and monthly—expand that wedge by becoming more and more useful. That kind of frequent improvement is exactly what cemented Google’s position, and it’s what will allow Facebook the opportunity, over time, to take it over.

Facebook has a huge opportunity in search: Whereas Google competes in search by understanding your intent, Facebook can do so by knowing you personally. For Facebook, search represents a monumental opportunity to increase usage, reassert its relevance to users who have burnt out on the service, and grow its business. But it will require thoughtfulness in how it develops and introduces the service in order to achieve it.