What Facebook search can answer

Investors’ ears perked up last week when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a few thoughts on how the social network might approach search. Zuckerberg raised an interesting concept when he spoke about Facebook offering “answers” in a way that might differ from traditional search engines.

“I think search engines are really evolving to give you a set of answers, not just ‘type in something and show me some relevant stuff,’ but ‘I have this specific question, answer this question for me.’ When you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have.”

But what does this really mean for users?

There are plenty of specific questions that Facebook can answer, but these are not necessarily the questions people have been asking Google. Take Zuckerberg’s example, What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the last six months and Liked? Facebook can absolutely answer that, but users aren’t currently framing questions that way. With Google they might try a string of keywords, but the real question on people’s minds is, Where should I go to eat? In some cases, a list of where friends have been might help lead users to an answer.

The social network has a lot to offer in situations like this where people are looking to learn more about a topic, conduct research or make comparisons rather than find a definitive, factual answer. Facebook has some potential to answer non-social queries, though Google is significantly ahead in that domain. Facebook will need to make some key new hires if it wants to improve its existing search offering and expand into answering user questions.

Here are some general types of queries and a look at how Facebook might be able to address each one.


This is the main type of search done on Facebook today. Users look for friends, pages and apps. Currently, this is only useful if users know exactly what they want (and even then Facebook often has trouble matching exact names). People cannot enter keywords to find related pages or apps, for example, “movies opening in 2012” or “photo editing apps.” People are also unable to use additional keywords to navigate to a more specific piece of content or section of a page, for instance “Le Cheval menu” or “Lincoln movie trailer.”

Facebook has a lot of room for improvement in this area of search. To encourage users to begin using Facebook to search for queries they typically turn to Google for, the social network will need to offer better navigational search for people, places, pages and apps on Facebook.com. Then, the company could begin introducing more web-based results, which it has indexed because of Open Graph and social plugins such as the Like Button. Few websites have properly tagged their sites with Open Graph meta data, but SEO specialists should consider looking into this now. Some websites are already benefiting from this integration and are appearing as “shared links” in the typeahead results.

Informational (Facts)

It will be a big challenge to break into this aspect of search, which Google excels at. However, Open Graph gives Facebook an opportunity to answer users’ questions that have factual answers, for example, a store’s business hours or the director of a movie. Facebook pages, as well as websites that have properly configured their Open Graph tags, include structured data that Facebook could use in a new search product. Below is the type of information that could be included in the meta data for an episode of a TV show, however, we haven’t seen Hulu or IMDB adding all these details to its Open Graph objects. More websites might do this if they knew it would improve their chances of appearing in Facebook search. Until then, Google has the advantage with its “Knowledge Graph,” which it uses to display relevant facts alongside traditional web results.

To compete, Facebook could begin offering Bing results in line with Facebook.com results. In July the social network added a “search the web” function to its typeahead search results, which leads users directly to a page of Bing results. If Facebook replaced its current typeahead search menu with a full page of results, similar to Google Instant, users would be able to get these kinds of answers without additional clicks.

Informational (Recommendations)

Here’s where Facebook can provide users with more relevant results than traditional search engines. Friend recommendations go a long way when when it comes to things like products, travel destinations, restaurants or books. Facebook can already surface a lot of information about what a user’s friends like, where they’ve been, what they’ve read, posts they’ve made about a topic and more.

Rather than create a search engine to direct users off Facebook, the company could create the ultimate landing pages for any entity. Many Facebook pages already include a mix of general information, company history, social context about how friends are connected to an entity, recent news, official content and consumer opinions. If Facebook were to consolidate Open Graph objects and eliminate fake pages, as it has been doing for place pages, it could provide a great service for consumer research and recommendations.

The company has an interesting start to local business search and music recommendations. We’d like to see Facebook take these efforts further and build out an easier way to search and discover the trove of data that users add every day.

Beyond Search

It is important to note that the types of searches we discussed above might not be as relevant in a mobile-first world. The act of searching may become less common as our devices begin to automatically suface the facts we need and recommendations we might want at a particular time. Given that Facebook has the most data on individual users, it seems well-suited to power this future, either itself or through third-party apps.

For instance, when a user schedules a lunch with a friend, Facebook could suggest conveniently-located restaurants that people are both likely to enjoy and happen to be open during that time. Or, rather than searching for a movie to stream and looking up reviews, users could turn on their TV and see a dashboard of what friends have watched and what they said about each film. After listening to a particular album, users might be notified that the artist has an upcoming show in town and they could simultaneously see a list of friends who also like the artist. Simply being at a location may soon lead a user’s device to offer relevant information and social context without requiring a search. For example, a user at a mall might see notifications about which stores have sales on items similar to the style of things they’ve previously bought or which store has a product that a friend with an upcoming birthday would enjoy.

There are many other possibilities that may arise as technology and behavior evolve. Facebook might also find unique ways to answer user’s questions through partnerships with Wolfram Alpha or Apple’s Siri.

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