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Facebook Must Take the Long View of Its Graph Search

facebook-icon 1In the world of search, we are going to hear about as much about Facebook’s new Graph Search product (which no one really has to use but that hasn’t stopped the speculation about it) as we will about Lance Armstrong. If that doesn’t make you a bit queasy then you are a stronger person than I.

The only thing I see regarding this development from Facebook is that the company is now strong enough to do what Google does. That is, they can take a long term view and let this product develop and change over a long period of time rather than having to knock it out of the park right out of the gate.

Google is taking that very same tact with Google+. They are making changes over time that make sense and they are not concentrating on forcing adoption of the service. People are finding out how it works for them and it is growing as a result in a way that could build long term viability. Google’s deep pockets allow for this. They don’t need to make money from it right now so they can iterate slowly over time.

So what is Facebook’s long term view on this? I can only speculate but here is my take. Since this product will be completely dependent on how deeply people are invested in Facebook and how much they share, this product will be more effective for younger users who are ‘native’ to the Internet age. Unfortunately for Facebook there are a lot of folks who are older and won’t give them the data they need.

I think Danny Sullivan said it very well in his take on the Facebook offering over at Search Engine Land.

When I’ve watched Facebook show me demos of Facebook Graph Search, and do some of the example searches I’ve itemized above, it’s impressive. But it’s also impressive because it’s a person from Facebook who makes heavy use on Facebook to connect to things and who is in turn tapping into the knowledge of many other Facebookers who are similarly hyper-connected. They are not, in a word, normal.

Consider me. Not only have I not liked my electrician, my plumber, my dentist, my doctor or my tax person on Facebook but I don’t even know if they have Facebook pages. I have nothing to offer to my Facebook friends in this regard.

Similarly, despite the huge number of books I read through my Kindle, I never go to like those books on Facebook, so books I love are more or less invisible on Facebook.

Well said. I know my friends on Facebook, even those who are firmly entrenched in the Internet world, fit the description of a Facebook user that Sullivan paints of himself. The people I would absolutely trust are not giving much in terms of social signals so if I tried to search on Facebook I would not get a true representation of those I really trust. I would get just the ones who use the service most as well as in a way that Facebook can actually get the information. There is the real risk that a search like this could end up being dominated by a few people who give Facebook what it needs to answer your questions but end up by no means being truly representative of all of my friends’ tastes etc.

As marketers there will be a strong pull to jump on this bandwagon quickly. That’s OK if the proper expectations are set from the start. In other words, expect a very inconsistent and choppy result not some search panacea. The younger your audience then it is more likely the data will be stronger since they typically share more since they are just more used to this kind of life. This, again, is the long term play for Facebook. This product will get better if the younger users who share more information stay with the service and then become the majority of the users. That will take years and years.

That strategy is one that can be taken by a big, deep pocketed player like Facebook. The one disadvantage and true risk that exists as compared to Google’s approach to being more ‘social’ with Google+ (it’s not a true social network folks no matter how hard you twist it) is that Google’s core product of search is solid and has few threats to its dominance. It’s also something that people will use for what it is because they are accustomed to it and comfortable with it.

With Facebook I always get the feeling that there is a real threat of people, especially this coveted younger, sharing-heavy group, using the social network less than we think. I see it with my teenage daughter. She has pushed Facebook to a distant third or forth as compared to use of Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (which with its ownership by Facebook could fall off as well) to communicate with her peers. She doesn’t like the ‘openness’ of Facebook and I don’t see that as changing as she gets older.

It would of course be foolish to draw broad conclusions based on one person’s dealings but she IS connected to many others who feel the same way. She is, as Sullivan pointed out, a ‘normal’ person and not some hyper connected kid. She also doesn’t think that everyone needs to know everything she thinks at every minute and on every subject (accept me of course but that’s another issue altogether :-))

Facebook can afford right now to make this new product a long term play. That is assuming that they keep their dominant position and hold on to the users they need to make this project work to the degree they anticipate.

Makes sense on the surface but they are asking for people to change a lot with regard to how they share, what they share and how MUCH they share. Count me out. I am fine with the level of sharing I have in social networks. I am still comfortable with calling a very close friend on the phone to get their opinion about something I need help with rather than crowdsourcing an answer from a broader group of people that are labeled as friends but are more like acquaintances in the online world.

And last, but certainly not least for Facebook, they are looking for more revenue sources more quickly. This could hinder the long term approach in a real way. Their IPO troubles and the road back to investor credibility will only continue to improve if they more money and make it quickly. How will they monetize this product will shape the product as much as the supposed user need does. That could possibly lead to premature moves that could hurt the long view.

This will fun to watch but drawing early conclusions about the value and importance of Facebook’s Graph Search will come with risk. Marketing budgets are not infinite and there are more and more places to put that money. Add a new product like this, albeit to a very well established service, and it strains those finite resources even more. Marketers will need to move with caution and see proof that this is a good option before diving headlong into the fray.

So how do you feel about this search option? Will it have legs? Will you ‘buy in’ enough to feed the need for data that Facebook will create in order to give strong results for you?

  • http://twitter.com/jacobedawson Jacob E. Dawson

    I think it’s very interesting to see Facebook roll this out, and I tend to agree with you that this is a slow-burning strategy similar to the approach that Google has taken with Plus.

  • Simon Yohe

    I don’t think this will be successful… i would rather utilize Amazon for product reviews and Yelp for restaurant reviews. To me, Facebook has evolved into more of a Instagram / Photo Sharing site, and not a place to go to get reviews for services or products I will buy. The other part of me also thinks that the rollout of this services will place a stronger emphasis on businesses to get fans to like their pages and promote their products further, and one wonders to what extent businesses/marketers will push this, which in my mind will have a negative impact on users experience on the site.