As Facebook continues its major push toward greater user openness (a la Twitter) this year, two product priorities are leading the way. First, Facebook’s new privacy controls will make it easier for Facebook users to share content publicly with everyone. Second, Facebook’s new real time search engine is designed to make it easier to find content your friends – or any Facebook users – have shared.
Of course, the two products are heavily intertwined. Without more open sharing, Facebook’s real time search engine could only show a limited subset of results. Without better real time search, users, marketers, and analysts would need to rely on an external search engine (like Google) to find what people are saying on Facebook – something Facebook clearly wouldn’t let happen.
But one of the most crucial steps that Facebook must take if it wants its to dominate Twitter in real time search is opening up a Facebook Search API as soon as possible. Today, hundreds of third party applications and monitoring tools are built on top of the Twitter Search API to keep tabs on product mentions, hot trends, and consumer sentiment. Given that Facebook has at least an order of magnitude more active users than Twitter, Facebook should be able to return much larger and broader data sets to marketers and journalists. In addition, since Facebook has much deeper data on user identity, it should be able to provide even richer types of aggregate real time search data if it so desires.
The consumer search applications are also clear. Facebook has the potential to displace Google and other search engines for queries on content discovery, product recommendations, news, and more. While Google makes a living inferring authority from links, Facebook will be able to infer authority from shares and social proximity. This is data Google largely doesn’t have access to (at least, full access to). If Facebook were to make it easier for users to do real time searches from a variety of applications and devices, it could become a more significant search player in the future, which in turn could drive substantial new revenue streams for the company.
For its part, when asked about Facebook’s plans to release a search API, a Facebook spokesperson recently told us, “We are not currently experimenting with this as part of this test, however it would definitely make sense for any search engine or a company who values openness to move more in this direction.”
All of this, of course, hinges upon Facebook’s ability to execute its product roll-outs very well over the coming months. Managing user expectations around changing privacy controls is no easy UX challenge. And building a good real time search engine is no easy engineering challenge – conceptually or technically – to say the least. However, if both go well, Facebook could be sitting pretty as it seeks to establish itself as the dominant real time search engine of the future.