In my recent predictions for 2017 post, I noted that search would be a big focus for Facebook in the next 12 months. I've been asked about this quite a bit, so in this post, I want to clarify that idea further and provide more context as to why Facebook will be looking to boost search - as well as outline scope of opportunity for The Social Network in this capacity.
For most users, search on Facebook seems like an afterthought, an add-on element that provides little in the overall experience. "Facebook couldn't really get a lot out of their search capacity, could they?" "Facebook couldn't, realistically, challenge Google in search. Could they?"
While it may seem minor, there's far more to search on Facebook than it may seem. And the opportunity is significant.
The number came as a surprise to most - search hadn't been noted as a big focus for Facebook since the introduction of Graph Search back in 2013, which was eventually "de-emphasized". Facebook has since refined their search architecture in order to make it a more beneficial and useful option, but for the most part, search has long felt like a side note, something that Facebook could never do properly due to privacy restrictions and limitations on what data they allowed access to.
But 1.5 billion queries every day is a huge amount of search activity, and an opportunity that can't be ignored.
Now, you'd expect, of course, that a lot of those searches would be for people's names - the actual percentage of searches that are for people as opposed to businesses or products would have an impact on how big a revenue opportunity search could provide. But Facebook's clearly sees potential - back in June, as part of Facebook's annual stockholder meeting, Zuckerberg made specific note of search within the context of their future opportunities:
"Over a five year period, some of the newer initiatives that we're working on I think will start to not only become very large communities in their own right - and some already are - but some of these new initiatives will also start to contribute meaningfully to our overall business, so I'm thinking about new apps that we're working on like Messenger and Whatsapp, which, I think you could say are pretty meaningful communities at this point, with Whatsapp more than a billion people and Messenger is around 900 million people, but we're really just getting started working on the business side of those. We think video is going to be a huge opportunity, same thing with search, and Instagram is really just starting to grow meaningfully as a business as well."
As noted, this is within the context of Facebook's five year growth strategy - they look at their developments in three different time horizons: three years, five years and ten years. That means search is not their key focus right now, but it is an area they're working on, and it's up there among their biggest projects.
Given this, the prediction that search is going to become a bigger focus for Facebook is less of an assumption and more about what they've clearly stated - search is an area in which they see great opportunity.
And that's with, really, only a minor search upgrade in the period - the search changes announced back in October 2015 aimed to show people more trending conversations and trends, along with posts from friends.
Given this growth, which has come without any significant push, it's not hard to see why Facebook's would be working to better facilitate such activity - but then, as noted, the next question is whether that search activity can actually be monetized and provide both a new revenue stream for Facebook and business opportunities for advertisers.
So what are people using Facebook search for?
Searching for Answers
While we don't have access to a full listing of Facebook search trends, we do have some indicators of what Facebook users are likely searching for, aside from people's names.
In December last year, Facebook quietly rolled out a desktop-only Professional Services feature which enables users to find services and service providers in their area.
When you visit to the Professional Services tab, you're shown a listing based on your location - look up 'Plumbers' for example and it'll show you all the Facebook-listed plumbers in your region (or 'movie theaters' as shown in the above example).
And while there's been no major push on the tool, it does suggest that Facebook's working to better facilitate user activity, that on-platform search volume has suggested that this is an option they could, or should, provide and that may prove valuable. Of course, it could just be that Facebook's looking for new avenues to boost the value of the platform with businesses, but either way, this is a search behavior they've actively sought to either facilitate or promote, which likely gives you some idea of their thinking on search potential.
Just last month, Facebook launched their new 'Marketplace' tab to better align with user behavior.
According to Facebook, more than 450 million users visit buy, swap and sell groups on Facebook every month - more than 25% of their total user base. Now this isn't search, as such, but it does, again, underline what Facebook search could be used for, and by facilitating this, Facebook can both generate more search activity (as the Marketplace tab has its own search function) while also learning more about search trends and behaviors within this element of the platform experience.
And another new element introduced last month also works in line with search trends and behaviors.
At the end of October, Facebook introduced their new recommendations and events tools.
Recommendations works to help users get advice from friends by turning their questions into call-outs for responses, helping to find the best matches for your query based on advice from the people you know and care about. This is search, but not as we know it - it utilizes Facebook's unique strengths, in personal connections, to fuel better answers, which could actually provide more relevant and helpful responses than Google in many respects.
Events, meanwhile, has been re-vamped to show you more contextually relevant event matches, based on what friends are doing and where things are happening.
Again, it puts a new spin on search, using Facebook's vast collection of user networks and advanced algorithms to highlight better matches. And what's more, Facebook's learning more from both of these features, working out what your friends recommend, what factors they specifically make note of, what other groups recommend the same queries.
Eventually, through tools like this, Facebook's search algorithm will be able to make more informed recommendations based on the activity of you and your friends - it'll learn what they're most likely to recommend and will be able to do it automatically. This is how Facebook could provide a new element to search. It's not there yet, but this is how Facebook could challenge Google.
It seems a stretch on the face of it, but when you look at the detail, it actually makes perfect sense.
So maybe, over time, Facebook could make something more out of search, maybe they could update their search processes and improve these add-on search functions and maybe, one day, challenge Google. But that's not going to happen anytime soon, right?
Here's the thing - in their most recent earnings announcement, Facebook CFO Dave Wehner noted that the platform's close to reaching peak ad load within the News Feed, the level of ads it can show to users without becoming an annoyance. and that this will likely impact on revenue performance moving forward.
The market did not like this - despite Facebook posting a huge profit and showing positive growth in all key areas, Facebook shares dropped in after hours trading.
Facebook obviously wants to avoid this, and as such, they're going to need to look for alternate sources of revenue. Instagram is one, that'll bring in more over time, monetizing live-stream content with ads will be another, but given the focus on alternate revenue streams, search all also likely get pushed forward.
How could Facebook monetize search? First off, Facebook would need to concentrate on optimizing their search functions so they're getting as many people using search as possible - Facebook Product Designer Justin Stahl published a post on Medium earlier this week which outlined how the platform's working to simplify and improve search to boost its utility.
Once more people are using search, Facebook can then start to deliver better options and highlight more relevant brand matches, using algorithms and location data to highlight search results that are both highly rated, based on Page ratings and user feedback, and contextually relevant, based on input from your personal connections.
And when people are using search more readily, Facebook could approach search ads in the same way Google does - sidebar matches for comparison and paid, sponsored ad slots that show up high for each query. They could offer the same for marketplace listings - you'll show up top of the list for a fee - and events as well. There's a heap of ways Facebook could utilize search for profit, both immediate, by offering on-page real-estate, and expanded, by utilizing search data to improve their matches. It's hard to put a potential dollar value on this, but Google generated $52 billion from search ads in 2015. Taking even a portion of that amount would be huge - and Facebook is very clearly positioned to do just that.
Given the various statements and announcements from Facebook, it's clear that search is going to become a bigger priority at some stage - it's really just a matter of when they decide to push it harder and bring out new tools and options to make it more appealing to both users and advertisers.
As noted, I expect we'll see movement on this in 2017. It won't make Facebook an immediate challenger for Google in search, but given the revenue potential, it doesn't have to be to make it worth their while.