"Snapchat is for friends"
This has been a key tenet upon which the app has found its place, that Snapchat, unlike other social platforms, is purely about staying in touch with the people you know, smaller groups, as opposed to building large followings of random strangers. That's why there are no follower counts, no 'Likes', and why search in the app is virtually non-existent.
Or at least it wasn't - this week, Snapchat has announced a new update to discovery on the platform, which doesn't necessarily help you find other users, but it will help those in the app find more content, which could keep them engaged for longer.
As you can see, the new option enables you to search for Snap content, with clips being grouped by keyword, location, and various other searchable categories.
The new option is an extension of Snapchat's Our Story feature - whenever you create a Snap, you have the option to also include it in a public story collection where, potentially, more people can see it.
Up until recently, you needed to submit your Snap to a specific public story for consideration for inclusion by Snapchat's editorial team - you can see an example in this image where you can add your Snap to 'Our NYC Story'.
But back in January, as part of their new search bar update, Snapchat also announced a change which enables users to simply indicate that they're happy to have their content considered for Our Story, giving Snapchat's team the opportunity to judge what gets included and where.
That, according to Snapchat, has lead to an influx of user-generated content, so rather than just let their editorial team pick and choose Snaps around specific themes, and let the rest go to waste, Snapchat's introduced a new machine learning process to sort that material by various categories and qualifiers.
What, exactly, those qualifiers are is not clear - TechCrunch explains that:
"Snapchat is using algorithms to scan the caption text, time and visual elements found in Snaps submitted to Our Story and group them by theme. For example, it could pull out Snaps with the words "dog" or "puppy" in captions, or use machine vision to detect the shape of a real dog in the photos or videos, and aggregate them into an Our Story that comes up when people search for "Puppies."
Snapchat could also use location tracking to tag relevant images, with many users having location data switched on to use Geofilters.
This is not the first time Snapchat has used machine learning to analyze and sort Snap data. Back in 2015, Snapchat introduced a new option called 'Story Explorer', which is pretty much the same thing as this latest addition, but without the specific search bar.
So, rather than search by keyword, you were able to find related Snaps by swiping up - the same concept, but applied in a different way.
Story Explorer found related images by using automated detection elements - as explained in the Snapchat blog:
"Story Explorer relies on technology developed by our research team to provide more depth to every Snap in a Story."
This was further confirmed by the Los Angeles Times, who, as part of an interview with Snapchat at the time, noted that:
"An expansive and expensive array of computers analyzing video submissions chooses the content shown in Story Explorer. They'll consider objects in videos, submission times and locations, and other data Snapchat's keeping quiet about."
Those are likely the same elements they're using in this new iteration - though interestingly, Story Explorer itself was retired last year due to concerns over the accuracy of related content, and that it wasn't adding much to the Snapchat experience.
Maybe Snapchat has refined their system since then, or maybe enabling users to search by keyword nullifies such concerns by removing the expectation that the content will be an exact match for the relevant event. Either way, the tool is the Snapchat's latest step towards adding in more search and discover functionality, a slow, but significant, evolution from the app's consciously private roots.
The new explore option offers opportunities for both engagement and potential exposure.
On engagement, Snap Inc., knowing that it can't possibly compete with Facebook on raw user numbers, has been working to make engagement the focus of their pitch, with their IPO documentation noting that its 158 million daily users spend 25 to 30 minutes in the app each day. With this new feature, Snapchat's hoping to push that even higher - they may not have a billion daily actives, but the audience they do have is highly engaged, which could be an appealing lure for advertisers trying to reach the Millennial market.
On exposure, the addition of search functionality could also help businesses get more attention by providing another way for their Snap content to be found. There are currently no ads set to appear within this new system (though it could be an opportunity for Snap Inc. to consider in future), but even without dedicated ad space, the fact that content can be surfaced based on more search terms automatically means marketers have another means to potentially boost their brand message.
Will that mean you need to include certain keywords in your Snaps to make them more visible? Will it increase the amount of marketers posting Snaps from major events in the hopes of tapping into a related stream? We obviously don't have the answers as yet, but you can bet, social media strategists are already considering 'Snapchat Story optimization' and ways they might be able to get more eyes to their content.
And also worth noting - Snaps that are included within the new search function could live on for much longer than the standard 24 hours, another opportunity for increased content value.
Really, the addition of more search options is a necessary one for Snapchat. Over 2.5 billion Snaps are created each day - the only way for Snapchat to maximize the value of all that content is to add in a discovery tool, and the only way for Snapchat to maximize the value of their ad offerings is to get users more engaged, especially if you concede that growing their audience is going to be increasingly difficult. But even if Snapchat is able to continue it's audience growth, providing more ways to keep people in app is essential - search, ideally, will be able to help do that, without intruding too much on the app's more intimate focus.