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Facebook's social search engine: a beginners' guide for brands

16:15 on Fri, 26 Oct 2012 | 0 Comments

Finding a long-lost love. Checking-out a former colleague or college house-mate. There are two prime motives for using Facebook search. The first is to build a network, whether friends are counted in the dozens, hundreds or thousands. The second is that healthy dose of nosiness about how people we used to know have turned out. But Facebook search is changing. 

While searching for people takes up the vast majority of the network’s 800 million queries per day, a “meaningful portion” of searches now relate brand pages and apps, according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. What does a “meaningful portion” mean? Twenty per cent? Ten per cent? Maybe five? Zuckerberg hasn't said. Even at the lower end of what “meaningful portion” might mean, that’s 40 million global searches for brand pages and apps every day. If we’re talking five per cent, that’s the equivalent of every Facebook member making at least one brand or app search every month.

Zuckerberg believes that Facebook is “uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions people have”.  Twenty-five minutes in to his interview with Michael Arrington of TechCrunch in September 2012, Zuckerberg said:

Search is interesting. It’s going in an interesting direction. The legacy around search is that you get search engines like Google and Bing and what Yahoo was doing before where you basically type in keywords and the search engine runs some magic to tell you what it thinks the answer is that matches your keyword. But I think that search engines are really evolving towards giving you a set of answers. It’s not just type something in and show me some relevant stuff. It’s: ‘I have a specific question – answer this question for me.’ So when you think about it from that perspective, I think Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have. What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the past six months – and liked? Which of my friends, or friends of friends, work at a company that I’m interested in working at because I want to talk to them about what it’s going to be like to work there? These are queries you could potentially do with Facebook if we built out this system that you just couldn’t do anywhere else. At some point we’ll do it.

At some point? Improving social search is part of the brief of Lars Rasmussen, Facebook’s director of engineering, who joined the network from Google in November 2010. Rasmussen dismissed the idea that Facebook was pursuing web search in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in July, but he added:

What I do think is that search features that we have on Facebook could be a lot better. Search is more about when you have a certain amount of intent. You know what you're looking for, you come and express what you're looking for and a good search engine will find the thing you are looking for. Both search and social have these distribution angles to them. Before social, if you wanted any sort of traffic on the web it had to come from search. But now social is starting to also serve that need. It's not what social is about but it’s one of thing that social happens to provide.

The three forms of Facebook search

Facebook’s search takes three core forms: the typeahead bar at the top of the page, the web results page with its suite of filters and the mobile results page. All three have the potential to deliver different results for users on identical search terms. According to Facebook, the vast majority of queries are handled by the typeahead bar.

A simple experiment reveals how the search results delivered by the typeahead bar can vary. The search query “The Sun” - the UK newspaper brand with a 627,000-strong Facebook following - was used as the search term on three separate Facebook accounts. The three accounts used for the search experiment varied in terms of the number of friends, frequency of use, frequency of engagement with friends or brands and the type of activity.

  • Account A. Four page results, two social app results, two places results. Top result: The Sun.
  • Account B. Two page results, three social app results, two places results. Top result: The Sun.
  • Account C. Three social app results, two page results, one place result. Top result: The Sunday Times Social List app.

Searching using Facebook's iPad app delivered further variation in results. If Account C's top desktop result was The Sunday Times Social List app, with Account C's mobile search, The Sunday Times Social List app did not feature in the top 15 search results. This variation in the results between accounts and platforms shows Facebook's algorithm at work.

The EdgeRank algorithm

Facebook has not revealed how its search engine works in detail, just as Google is coy about explaining precisely how its search algorithm gives varying weight to 200-plus ranking factors. But ask a Facebook staffer what is at the heart of search activity now and in future and the answer is likely to be one word: relevance.

Facebook’s results are not a simple keyword match. Nor is it a matter of delivering the “most popular” Facebook page related to the search query. The page with the most “likes” does not necessarily emerge at the top of the search results. Instead the search engine is attempting to deliver results most relevant to the user’s Facebook profile and usage.

Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm – which prioritises content in a user’s newsfeed – offers some insight into the kind of factors that are seen as valuable by the network. EdgeRank balances:

  1. Affinity – how frequent and engaging the relationship is between the user who is viewing content and the user who posted it.
  2. Weight – a measure of how engaging the type of content is, whether pictures, video or text, and whether it includes a link.
  3. Time – how recently the content was posted.

Content which scores highly on these three measures gravitates towards the top of a user’s newsfeed. So if EdgeRank indicates what factors Facebook sees as valuable, could they also apply to search? The search algorithm appears to take account of a variety of factors relating to the user who types the query:

  1. Affinity – like EdgeRank, the frequency and how engaging the relationship is between users and pages;
  2. Pages their friends and friends-of-friends like;
  3. Use of Facebook apps;
  4. Location;
  5. Platform – mobile or desktop.

But the profile of the user appears to be only part of the search algorithm. The other part of the search equation is how pages are set up.

Can brands influence their Facebook search rankings?

A Facebook is treated as a "second homepage" for many brands. Facebook’s search engine indexes content that has been posted in the last 30 days, so there is a clear incentive for brands and individuals keen to feature in search results to post content frequently – again, mirroring EdgeRank. However, are Facebook users searching for a brand name or what a brand does? Many brands use the “About” section of their Facebook page as an opportunity to talk about the history and pedigree of the company without a clear description of what they do. This may be a missed opportunity. There are a number of “on page” factors that brands should consider:

  1. Page name – is the brand name enough?
  2. Securing a relevant vanity URL for the Facebook page;
  3. How is the brand described in the “About” section?

What is unclear is how Facebook’s search engine ranks pages for engagement. Is there a search premium for brand pages that engage consistently with their followers, in the same way that the EdgeRank algorithm might see high-engagement brands benefit from higher profile in a user’s newsfeed? Indeed, does the algorithm benefit those brands that interact with other pages relevant to their field of expertise? The evidence for a benefit from “reciprocal liking and engagement” between complementary brands is limited – but an area worth close attention.

Facebook’s intention seems clear. It sees an unparalleled opportunity to create a search tool for users driven by social signals and the habits of its users. Brands with a Facebook presence have a simple choice: take steps to optimise for social search on the world’s biggest social network or wait in the hope that users will find you.

Summary

“Search is a powerful tool for finding out what people on Facebook think about the world around them,” the social network says.   But why does Facebook search matter? Research by the UK communications regulator Ofcom published in July 2012 noted that two-thirds of the online audience in Britain had a Facebook account – a greater penetration than in many other countries. The regulator added that Facebook was second only to Google for the number of monthly unique visitors (31.2million unique visitors versus 25.8 million unique visitors in March 2012).   But Ofcom also indicated that it would be wrong to see Facebook as a walled garden:

Users of Facebook often post links to other sites. The extraordinary reach of the social network means that this practice can have considerable impact, potentially rivalling search engines in terms of directing web traffic.

Crucially, Ofcom also reported that Facebook was among the top eight most popular websites across every UK age group. 

Facebook’s intention seems clear. It sees an unparalleled opportunity to create a search tool for users driven by social signals and the habits of its users. Brands with a Facebook presence have a simple choice: take steps to optimise for social search on the world’s biggest social network or wait in the hope that users will find you.

 

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