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.

Navigational

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.