California Quake Highlights Strengths And Weaknesses Of Facebook's Real-Time Search

An earthquake in Northern California this morning went unnoticed by hundreds of thousands of people, however Facebook noticed and was able to surface the statuses of those users who felt the quake and those who didn’t. Using Facebook search as a source for real-time information is something that was only recently made available, but with the recent privacy transition tool that users had to go through, much more information is now available with Facebook search.

When we first covered Facebook’s new real-time search features back in August, we highlighted some of the weaknesses of search as well as some of the strengths. Facebook’s privacy transition tool has clearly resolved some of the issues about increasing the volume of public content published through the Facebook stream. However Facebook’s communication model is fundamentally different than Twitter, who appears to have a greater volume of public updates, perhaps a result of their “Trending topics” feature within Twitter search.

For example, a quick search for Jay Leno on Twitter, who is rumored to be heading back to the Tonight show, results in many more updates than Facebook search. As one blogger recently put it, part of the way Twitter users communicate is by commenting on the latest trending topics, as most users don’t have many followers and aren’t following many others. On Facebook, users communicate among their friends, not strangers.

This fundamental difference could be one of the reasons that Twitter still tends to show more results on any given search query. Despite the decreased volume of updates, Facebook still is effective at surfacing recent results, something that the site wasn’t even capable of doing prior to August. In a few more months, we’d expect Facebook to upgrade their search product significantly, also eventually including a search API, something that I previously suggested would be necessary to complete Facebook’s Twitterfication.

Even once Facebook has matched all of Twitter’s features and both sites serve as the central hubs of the real-time web, searching real-time information is still inefficient. Neither Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Microsoft have mastered real-time search, and many experts still question the value of content being surfaced through real-time search engines (although it’s pretty clear some value exists). As Stephen Shankland writes, a real-time result of “Whooo, earthquake in Northern Cali!”, in response to a query for “earthquake”, doesn’t provide that much value.

Although as Stephen continues, “just seeing the scrolling real-time result is helpful to tip people off that something is going on right now they might want to be aware of.” For now we’ll have to wait and see how the Facebook search product evolves. It’s clear that more information is flowing through the system thanks to Facebook’s privacy transition tool, however there is still a long way to go in the world of real-time search.

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