Watch Out, Google: Facebook’s Social Search Is Coming

Mark Zuckerberg during his talk at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 in San Francisco, on Sept. 11, 2012. Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In his first interview since his company’s underwhelming initial public offering and subsequent stock slide, Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday told the audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco a lot about the social network’s strategy in a number of areas, including a defense of the company’s approach to mobile and an explanation why it moved away from HTML5 for its apps. But while those comments were interesting, I thought the most revealing part of the interview came when Zuckerberg talked about search. Although he didn’t go into a lot of detail, it was clearly intended as a shot across Google’s bow: The underlying message was that Facebook is going to do social search, and soon—and that it already has most of the ingredients necessary to mount a significant challenge to the search giant.

In response to a question from TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, Zuckerberg said that the social network already handles about 1 billion search queries every day, “and we’re basically not even trying.” For comparison purposes, that’s about a third of the 3 billion queries Google handles every day. But it’s not just about volume. The critical factor is that Facebook’s searches are all about finding socially relevant information, from people to brands and related topics. As he put it:

“Search engines are really evolving toward giving you a set of answers … like, I have a specific question, answer this question for me. And when you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have. That’s one obvious thing that would be interesting for us to do in the future.”

As an example, the Facebook CEO said a question might be something like: “What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York, and liked?” This is the kind of answer that Google simply isn’t very good at providing (or at least, isn’t yet). It can show you sushi restaurants within a few miles of your location, and it can show you ratings from Yelp and other services to help you choose, including reviews from its recently purchased review providers Zagat and Frommer’s, which are starting to show up in the “one box” results for restaurants. But it can’t really show you which ones your friends like, unless they all happen to be on Google+.

Coming up with that kind of socially relevant data was the whole purpose behind the launch of Google+. It was intended as a way of getting lots of people to create profiles and add friends and interests, thereby generating a ton of data that would make it easier for the search giant to target advertising, as well as help add social elements to its search results. The biggest problem with the “Search Plus Your World” feature is that it primarily shows you content from Google’s network and whatever it can scrape together from the two networks that make up the bulk of people’s online social lives: Facebook and Twitter.

Like Facebook, Google knows that search is moving from keywords and links to providing answers for users to such questions as “Where should I eat?” and “Who can repair my car the best?” That’s why the company has been spending so much time and effort adding expert information from such places as Wikipedia and from its own sources, such as Zagat. But that isn’t social data, and while there has been plenty of debate about the ultimate value of social recommendations, there’s no question that Facebook has a far better grasp of that than Google does. And unless Facebook and Twitter choose to change their blockade of the search engine, it is likely to stay that way.

As venture investor (and eBay staffer) Chris Dixon pointed out in a tweet about Zuckerberg’s comments, the point of the Facebook CEO’s remarks wasn’t that the network plans to do search in the same way that we think of it now, by slapping a search box from Bing or Google on the page. Instead, it wants to provide a whole different aspect of search, one oriented around a user’s social graph and connections. With close to a billion users and more than five billion actions involving status updates and like, plus all the other activity that occurs on Facebook every day, that is a massive data set with which to triangulate a user’s interests.

Whether Facebook is going to be able to do this while it is also trying to advance a mobile strategy and reinvent advertising and all the other things on its plate is an open question, and so is the effect that moving into the social-search arena will have on the company’s relationship with Microsoft, which provides its own social search via a partnership with the social network. But if anyone has the resources to reinvent search for the social age, it is pretty clearly Facebook. And that could be Google’s worst nightmare.

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