Facebook Search Will Be Better than Google (5% of the Time)

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

In May, I predicted that Facebook would introduce a search offering by the end of 2012. Recent reports suggest that the battle for search may heat up even before the weather cools down – Facebook was already starting to link Open Graph with search results in June.

But the big question remains: Will Facebook’s search engine be better than Google’s anytime soon?

On the whole, no way.

Then is Facebook spending mega dollars to develop an algorithm that needs constant upgrading – one that will almost certainly be inferior to the search engines we already have – all for naught?

Here’s the thing: a Facebook search product doesn’t need to be better. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t need to be better all the time. If a Facebook search returns a better result once in twenty searches, it will be a success.

We tend to think of search as a winner-take-all market (in part because Google has practically taken it all with its 66% market share). And for the majority of searches, it’s true that Google can’t be beat. If I’m looking for an address, a specific article, the origin of a phrase, or that Mark Bittman recipe for pasta alla gricia, Google is my best friend. But what about when I’m searching for something less specific and more taste-based? On this front, the market leader leaves a whole lot to be desired.

“Good books.” “Restaurants in Bali.” “Car mechanic in Seattle.” The list I get from Google isn’t right – good book, interesting restaurant, reliable mechanic according to whom? Recommendations are the thin-edge-of-the-wedge: an entry point into search where Google is weak. Pinterest and Yelp have already staked out important segments of this otherwise unclaimed territory. But Pinterest isn’t going to help me with auto mechanics, and Yelp is struggling with its own “there’s no accounting for taste” problem.

The fact is, I’m already turning to Facebook for this kind of information – it’s just poorly organized. When my car window got stuck halfway open (not a tenable condition in my perpetually-drizzling city), I remembered a post from a few months back about my friend Jen’s amazing new mechanic and scrolled down through her timeline to find the name of the place. But what if I couldn’t remember which friend had posted? And how do I know that another friend didn’t rave about a mechanic just as great but in a closer neighborhood?

Searches for hotels, restaurants, books, movies, and music – just a few of the categories that would be greatly improved with access to friends’ recommendations – account for 650 million Google searches in the US every month (according to data pulled from Google’s keyword tool). That’s almost 6% of the 11.7 billion searches Google processed for US users in May. If Google brings in $36B in search ads annually, that’s a $2 billion slice of pie that Facebook could lift right out of Google’s lunchbox. And they could do it without even developing a full-web search.

In theory, Google could preemptively lock up that lunchbox by building their own recommendation search. They will almost certainly try to do just that, but they will lack the data to build a credible offering. Facebook has a 100X or better data advantage when it comes to recommendations, and that data advantage continues to snowball: Facebook logs 2.7 billion Likes every day to Google’s 20 million +1s. (Google doesn’t release the actual number of +1s, but let’s be generous and assume it’s roughly in proportion to the time spent on each network.)

Facebook is in a position to push with its greatest strength – a big and beautiful dataset of people and their relationships to brands, places, things, and other people – on Google’s most vulnerable point. And once Facebook gets a foot in the door with recommendation search, it won’t take much for them to push the door all the way open. The first time Facebook serves me five great beach reading recommendations from trusted friends is the last time I’ll even think of Googling “good books” before a vacation. And the same goes for choosing a new bank, finding a dentist, switching internet providers, buying car insurance, and on, and on, and on.

Pretty soon, 20% of my searches will be just as good or better on Facebook’s social search. And when Facebook finally does tack on whole-web results to the package (internally or through a partner like Bing), I’ll be much less inclined to leave Facebook, which is already my home base, to search for that Mark Bittman recipe on Google.

Survey data suggests that I’m not the only one who would be willing to give up the Google entirely if Facebook had a passable search offering. 17% of respondents in Greenlight’s 2012 “Search & Social Survey” would “definitely” or “probably” use a Facebook search engine as an alternative to Google. Another 27% indicated that they might be willing to make the switch.

Facebook search will win us over slowly, by degrees. They’ll start with what they know – the likes and dislikes of you, your friends, and people like you – and they’ll woo us with exceptional answers to a few key questions. We’ll keep the old, reliable search engine around for a while…but as soon as Facebook makes the move, Google’s days will be numbered.

Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

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

Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently.  And they’ve made it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.

The changes are smart.  Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet.  What is Faraday’s Law, again?  What exactly is a geoduck?

But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter.  This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed.  There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking.  Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers.  And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!)  The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer.  If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does.  Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.

What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).

Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent.  (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the endgame?  In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner.  And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot.  And to find something to do on the weekend.  I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?

The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today.  I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”

The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other.  But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am.  (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)

Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:

Proactive:  It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry.  Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins).  It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside.  Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.

Personal:  Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map.  My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers.  While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away.  Talk about targeting!

Social:  Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them.  I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert.  The only thing worse than not going is going alone.  But who else do I know who loves them like I do?  That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one.  Two words:  “Jason Hirschhorn”.  Is that so hard?

There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue.  (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)

Most of us don’t have personal assistants.  But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes.  It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me.  But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.

And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser.  And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.

We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us.  In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.

The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?)  Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships.  That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking.  Which is sooooo true.  I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do.  Why should we both get the same search results?

Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go.  The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing.  But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.

With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do?  I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….

What to Expect When Facebook Is Expecting: Five Predictions for Facebook’s First Public Year

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

Mark Zuckerberg’s baby will be coming of age in a few days, just eight years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room. We’ve been there for the first steps, and the first missteps. But do any of us know what Facebook-all-grown-up-as-a-public-company will look like?

I have five predictions of how Facebook will be maturing in the first year after its IPO:

1. Search

Facebook has become home base for users in many ways. But when it comes to search, Facebook makes you take a bus transfer at Google every time you want to leave the house.

And that’s a shame, because Google starts each search from a place of knowing almost nothing about me. When I’m taking a vacation to Bali, I’m far less interested in Google’s generic recommendations of things to do than I am in recommendations from my friends who have been there.

Facebook already knows which of my friends have been to Bali, and which restaurants and attractions they liked the best. It can even differentiate between the friend I trust for restaurant recs and the friend who always finds the best surfing spots.

There is a clear battle between Google and Facebook. But it’s not over “search vs. discovery,” as it is often framed. Rather, it’s “transaction vs. relationship” — which is why Facebook has the potential to disrupt search as we know it.

Prediction: Facebook will launch a purely social search by the end of 2012 (before tackling the whole hog in 2013).

2. Advertising

Despite the company’s fierce ethos of consumer experience first, business concerns second, an IPO will inevitably put upward pressure on the latter. With the numbers published quarterly and the prices reset every day, Facebook will be forced to support that share price (if not for the sake of its shareholders, then at least for its employees!) by expanding its advertising revenues.

Facebook today brings in quarterly ad revenue of $872M — just a tiny fraction of Google’s $9B. But transactions are by nature pecuniary — and relationships are priceless. As a gatekeeper to nearly a billion consumer relationships, Facebook can roll out new advertising products that are far more valuable than AdWords.

The market for online brand advertising is already huge at $85B today. As soon as Facebook unlocks the potential of relationship-based advertising, the market will open up by tens of billions more.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will have more than tripled ad revenues to $3B per quarter.

3. Open Graph

Occupy Facebook! Oh wait, we already do. Or does Facebook occupy us? Facebook currently occupies 1 in 7 minutes of all time spent online.

As the locus of consumer identity, attention and relationships, Facebook has the potential to be the one true platform that links together every destination on the web.

But it’s not there yet. Open Graph was a start, but it lacks a complete and actionable vision for how publishers can connect, access data and establish relationships. Publishers don’t want bits and pieces of data that they need to analyze themselves — they want a unified schema that bridges their audiences’ online worlds and real lives.

When I buy a chicken at Whole Foods using a Facebook app’s mobile grocery coupon, Facebook can match that incoming data point with the fact that I read Cooks Illustrated and that I’ve been on an Indian food kick lately (based on my restaurant check-ins). By the time that chicken is in my reusable bag and I’m hauling it out the door, there should be chicken curry recipe suggestions on my Facebook page.

Facebook has an opportunity to turn data from the long tail of Facebook apps into real inferences about you and me that publishers and other brands on the web can actually use.

Prediction: Facebook will completely redesign their analytics offering by Q2 2013 to provide not just data but real, integrated audience insights that will guide brands’ personalization efforts.

4. Commerce and Currency

Advertising won’t be the only revenue play Facebook makes in its first year as a public company.

Digital commerce (i.e. digital goods) already represents more than $16B in market size, and is projected to grow to $36B globally by 2014. E-commerce is another $680B on top of that. Both are currently conducted by arcane means: Visa card numbers and PayPal accounts.

Why have digital payments been so slow to evolve? Because even the most trusting of us only allow a few close associates access to our most private details. Who knows me the best? My bank, my lawyer, my mother and Facebook. In fact, no one owns my identity as well as Facebook these days (sorry, Mom!). Just because Facebook doesn’t have access to my wallet yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

A host of companies today (Google, Apple, Square) are trying to become your digital wallet, but Facebook holds a valuable advantage: it is already the locus of your relationships with third-party Web sites through Open Graph. While the logistics will certainly be no piece of cake, commerce is right up Facebook’s alley.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will be presiding over $2B in transactions.

5. Timeline

There’s nothing more core to Facebook than its user experience, and Facebook has since its birth shown a consistent healthy dissatisfaction with it no matter what the status quo.

The current timeline experience is a nice try, but it’s not quite right. Timeline solved one problem — the indigestible frequency and quantity of updates at all levels of priority — while creating several more. New Problem #1: Timeline’s intuition about what’s important is too frequently just plain wrong. And while it gives us a great retrospective on people, it does a surprisingly poor job of helping us stay up to date with them. New Problem #2: Timeline depends heavily on Open Graph widgets to summarize our lives.

The latter is both ambitious and troubling. We admire great biographers for their ability to identify and communicate the essence of a person. It’s an insult say that a Nike Fuel score algorithm can capture the “real me” in the same way.

Timeline is a v1 product. It will take significant and deep tuning over many versions to reach its full potential.

This may seem like it’s just a UI update, but it’s not. Timeline is the clearinghouse for everything that happens on Facebook. Getting Timeline right is probably the single most valuable thing Facebook can do to grow its effectiveness with users — and its revenues.

Prediction: Facebook will release the first major redesign of Timeline by the first half of 2013.

Will the precocious kid that Facebook is today grow into a smart, savvy adult? A boatload of investors and J.P. Morgan certainly seem to think so. Over the long term, it will depend on Facebook’s ability to leave its youthful single-minded focus on users behind and execute consistently against two metrics: great user experience and revenues to match.

Social Done Right Is a Multiplier

A number of people have asked me to share the math behind something I said last week:  that social users are much more valuable than users from search.

As some of you will recall, I was referring to the most powerful use of social: to build loyal audience relationships.  It’s worth far more than a chance at a viral hit, a millionth fan, or even a social comment or like.  That’s because the social networks are really “relationship platforms.”  The currency of social networks is the data describing what users like.  And with that data, anyone can serve an audience – and build a branded relationship with users – far better than a blue link in Google can do.

In the interest of proof, I’ll share some of my company’s data with you.  We’ve been tracking the long-term value of users from various sources for some time – about 7 months and counting now.  And the results couldn’t be more conclusive:

Users from social visit more often and stay longer. 

How much more often?  Our Facebook users come 70% more often over the course of our dataset.

And each time, they stay on average 50% longer – consuming more content, pageviews, and advertising.

Put that together, and each Facebook user brings us 2.5x the revenue of a search user.  And that’s without yet even adding in the value of engagement and viral referral to drive even more audience!

You may be wondering why that is.  Well it’s not just pure luck.  The reasons are twofold:

First, social users are in a branded relationship.  When your property shows up in a Facebook or Twitter feed, you can be identified with your logo and brand name.  One better is when someone Likes or Follows you.  When that happens, you’re now talking about the chance to build a relationship many times a day – with each and every post.  From a brand building standpoint, this is nirvana – and it’s probably the most important reason why advertisers will spend billions of dollars to get into the social news feed this year.  But even better for content publishers:  if you do it right, you can get in for free.

Second, the social relationship platform actually doubles as a data platform.  It gives publishers real-time feedback data about what works, when.  If you watch and measure carefully, you can tune the content, packaging and timing with real-time feedback so you can give the audience exactly what they want, when and how they want it.

So while social users are outperforming search today, the good news is that next week, if you use all that data to improve what you do, they’ll do even better.  The chart above is an average value over the last seven months, and what it doesn’t show you is that social users have been increasing in value over time.  Take a look:

In January, the average user who came from Facebook looked at 9 pages – that’s more than double the number we were seeing just 5 months ago.

I’m actually not surprised that not every publisher is seeing this kind of loyalty and engagement from social users.  After all, it didn’t come without effort – I credit the dramatic increase in social user engagement in the chart above to our advanced technology helping the Wetpaint team understand and serve our audience.

But that doesn’t mean that every publisher can’t get more loyalty from social users than they’re getting today.  It just makes sense: social users should be more engaged and brand-loyal.  They have a strong incentive to read and watch what their friends are talking about, to be included in the conversation.  The only reason that many brands aren’t seeing the full value of social is that they’re blind to the opportunity of rich connections and data – and ultimately, they’re the ones who will be left out of the conversation.

Is Social a Fad for Media?

I feel like a lot of my posts lately have been beating the social drum, so I need to clarify my perspective.  Social isn’t just a fad.  It isn’t just a channel, or an alternate distribution medium.

It’s actually turning into the new ether.  As in “need it to breathe.”  And while it’s not actually all about friends, it absolutely is about connecting to your audience.

Case in point:  according to Compete, in February Wetpaint Entertainment received more traffic from Facebook than from Google.  Hey, I told you it was gonna happen.  It’s because social has provided a medium for data and connection that lets us deeply relate to our audience.  Increasingly, other publishers are finding the same – The Guardian most recently joined the club.

The best part is that these gains in social aren’t coming at the expense of other channels – our overall traffic (including our search traffic) continues to climb. Social signals have a huge impact on search rankings, and so it makes sense that our social success would drive audience growth outside of social, too.

For the last several years, many a publisher’s greatest fear has been that they’ll lose favor with Google.  Afraid that any shift in strategy from SEO to social will lead to a precipitous fall from Google grace and a drop in traffic, they monitor the search rankings daily to see if the gods are pleased.

But ironically, it turns out that an investment in social is the best SEO there is.

Social Engagement Drives Search Traffic

A year and a half ago, I called an end to the decade-long obsession with search.  I claimed that SEO is dead, and I set my sights on perfecting a strategy for its successor, SMO (social media optimization).

Since then we’ve succeeded wildly in driving social traffic (we are now #1 compared to all of the 50 largest web publishers); but as my friend Jack asked me recently:

Has the success in social come at the expense of search? 

The answer may surprise you, as it has me. By focusing on social, we’ve achieved even more – in fact, unprecendently more, in search.  Here, I’ll show you:

Could it be that by forsaking SEO in favor of social, we earn more search traffic?  Seems perverse.  I went looking for an explanation, and I dug up some interesting info: behind content, social signals are the most important factor in search ranking.

In this interview with Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing’s Webmaster program and former head of SEO for MSN, he offers a glimpse of what really matters in the black box of a search engine’s algorithm – and in his words, what matters most for publishers.  He lays out the three most important factors, in order:

1. Content
2. Social Media
3. Link building

This is big news for an industry that’s had years of conditioning to believe that link building and keywords are the Holy Grail of SEO.  In 2010, 60% of companies spent more than $25K on SEO, while a measly 25% spent that much on social.

Looking at this gap, it’s clear that there’s about to be a whole new wave of investment in SMO.  Not only is social a bigger factor than traditional SEO in search rankings today, but it’s trending up.  “At some point, social could be more important than content,” predicts Bing’s Forrester.  “But that assumes you have excellent content in place.”

Publishers: if you have that excellent content in place, put down your old SEO playbook and start investing in social.  What does investing in social look like?  It means repackaging your content for a social audience, and then delivering it to them at the right time and in the right channel.  At Wetpaint, each piece of content gets a tailor-made package (we tweak the title, the timing, the images, even the content itself) depending on its destination.

The best investment in search is an investment in social.  Really, that’s not perverse at all.  As Bing’s Forrester explains, “When you delight someone with the best user experience possible, we pick up all those signals that person shares about their delight, and those signals influence our perception of your quality.”

Now go forth, get social, and delight in the search traffic that follows.

Living Up To Your Social Potential: Understanding the Emotions That Drive Sharing

Last week I shared how most publishers are realizing just a fraction of their potential audience because they lack a social distribution strategy, and showed which topics are most likely to be shared by connected audiences.

But is topic the only aspect of content that influences sharing?  Could articles with topics as disparate as gardening and bull fighting share some other characteristic that would make them both go viral?

The Journal of Marketing Research published the study What Makes Online Content Viral? in 2011 to appease inquiring minds.  Researchers analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over 2 months to determine what factors made an article more likely to earn a place on the Times’ “most-emailed” list.

What they found:

  • Intensely emotional content is  more viral
  • Positive content is more viral than negative
  • High-arousal emotions  (like anger, awe and anxiety) increase sharing
  • Low-arousal emotions (like sadness) decrease sharing
  • Practical value, surprise and interest (you don’t say!) all increase virality

But wait a minute…are the factors that predict email sharing the same as those that predict Facebook or Twitter sharing?  Here’s where we run into the difference between broadcasting and “narrowcasting.”  Remember that purple rash I mentioned last week?  I’ll email that WebMD article to my significant other (anxiety! practical value!) but I most certainly won’t tweet about it.

 

I looked again at the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 to see which of the study’s findings held up on the social networking stage.

Sound familiar?  It mirrors the formula for success that Nieman Lab found Buzzfeed using to achieve record results.  And, notably, practical value, the #2 driver of email virality, falls all the way down to the bottom of the list on Facebook.

In social network sharing, emotion is king.  As Jonah Lehrer of Wired puts it:

“We don’t want to share facts – we want to share feelings.  Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs.”

Before you go and replace all of your content with funny baby videos and Justin Bieber songs, remember that this isn’t about sacrificing the integrity of content for traffic.  It doesn’t work that way.  This is about engaging readers on the most important axis of all: the axis of significance.  Emotional content helps us connect with friends online in a deeper way than a how-to video might.

But what if you’re a publisher of practical content?  No need to despair:

“The future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” says Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed).

We all have a powerful emotional drive to live a great life, and getting there means knowing how to be healthy, how to fix a leaky faucet and how to maintain successful relationships.  Oprah’s tagline “Live Your Best Life” is a beautiful example – no one is better at linking home décor and health advice to something far greater and more aspirational.  Publishers in the midst of developing a social distribution strategy (especially those of us not lucky enough to traffic in Bieber songs) will be wise to follow her lead.