Facebook search is getting an upgrade and overhaul, and the local search aspects of it are worth watching.
It's called Facebook Graph Search. It's considered a work-in-progress (ergo the "beta" label that Facebook gave it) and only a small percentage of Facebook users can access it right now.
In a nutshell, Graph Search is a search engine specifically for content that lives on Facebook -- Pages, places, friends, movies, music and so forth. Web results are backfilled from Bing, but that's not really the point. It's about searching for Facebook content.
Facebook Graph Search & Local Search
Where local search is concerned, it could mean increased visibility for local businesses that optimize their Facebook presence appropriately. Or it could be a big bust that very few Facebook users adopt.
We asked a few of our Local U faculty members to give their very early thoughts on Facebook Graph Search and its potential impact on local marketing and small business owners. Here are their replies.
It is an incredible development to have another strong presence in the local space. Overtime, if executed properly, FaceBook has the potential to send as many leads that are ready to buy to a local business as Google does with search.
But that time is likely a ways off and may never come.
Local has proven to be devilishly hard to execute at scale and there are many stumbling blocks before the product becomes universally useful. Facebook has to execute on delivery value and make very few stumbles. One Apple Maps fiasco and they may be out of the local game before they start. Spam is an example of the type of problem that will dog Facebook and it can quickly bring a local product to its knees.
Consumer behaviors and habits will have to change before they start using Facebook for something other than socializing with their friends. Will they start using Facebook at scale to look for local businesses and if so when?
Lastly the Facebook recommendation system may or may not scale and be universally useful. If it does, it will be an incredibly powerful way for consumers to learn more about businesses.
At the moment, from an SMB's point of view, Facebook is great for customer retention, customer communication and customer loyalty. It is important for the SMB to be aware of the future opportunity that Facebook represents. You should, if you haven't already, create a Facebook Page for your business and encourage your customer to like it and comment.
Don't, however, fall prey to the shiny-new-toy syndrome. All too often SMBs don't have enough resources to do everything. Know where your leads are coming from and spend the bulk of your time and money there. Experiment with Facebook, track its value and, as Facebook gets their act together in this difficult field, you can increase your use and time with the product to match.
I have more questions than answers at this point, and that's even after having the chance to use it. I certainly think it has the potential to be useful, but I echo Mike's comments above related to changing user behavior.
Having a Facebook Page is one of the ranking/visibility signals (but it's not required). Getting Facebook users to check-in will help, too, because there's a search filter for "People who have visited this place."
Facebook has made its Check-In feature much more visible in its iOS (and Android, I presume) apps, but I've never seen any data about how many users actually check-in to places. That's a user behavior that may need to change to really have value.
The other thing that will have to change is habit. Facebook search has historically been nothing short of useless, unless you're looking for a friend. Google is a habit. It's where people go for local information. Will that behavior change?
I like what I've seen so far with the local search aspect of Facebook Graph Search. I'm just not convinced yet that it will have a big impact.
I tend to be a little more bullish on Facebook Graph Search than almost all of my colleagues. There is currently a misperception among many business owners that Facebook is an acquisition and transaction platform, but this latest announcement is Facebook's strongest step yet to meet that perception. Brian Provost jokingly tweeted that he was ready to fire up the ad-unit spam, but there's a huge grain of truth to that tweet.
Facebook is the only web property besides Google that can deliver staggeringly high, geographically relevant traffic to small business web pages with its ad product. That's the problem with most Internet Yellow Pages ad offerings: There just aren't enough clicks on one-off IYP platforms to bring in anything close to the number of phone calls that USED to come from the phone book. Even the most popular IYP, Yelp, has this problem.
Facebook's problem, though, is that the intent of its users doesn't currently match up with its traffic potential. Adding in the element of search marries the incredible number of eyeballs with that "looking to buy" intent. Business owners already have a much more favorable perception of Facebook than Yelp, Google, or traditional Yellow Pages companies. As many have said, if Facebook does this right, the revenue potential is huge.
One of the reasons Facebook may have "soft launched" this to a handful of tech press, then, rather than a massive consumer rollout like Google did with +Local or Apple did with Apple Maps, was to avoid an Apple Maps-level fiasco. I suspect the "user training process" on Graph Search will be gradual, Facebook will accumulate usability data over time, and when they feel like they've got it to a level they're comfortable with, they'll push its usage much more and monetize it more heavily.
The following quote from Zuckerberg stood out in todays announcement to me:
"Graph Search is a really big product. It's going to take years and years to index the whole map of the graph and everything we have out there."
The potential is huge. Google bet the the farm on social recommendations as a the future of search with Google+. Personally, I know my friends well enough to prefer their reviews compared to strangers. So, socially searching for restaurants, services, and stores and being able to have a huge amount of recommendations from my peers is attractive.
In my mind the question is this: Who will get there first? Google or Facebook? According to Facebook, it's going to take years to map the graph. Google+ is gaining momentum and already has a solid map and local review system in place and Facebook eliminated their business review system in 2011 in favor of a recommendation system. Recommendations can't compete with the positive/negative reviews that you can find through Google+. So, will Facebook revamp reviews? If not, their data may not be as valuable as Google+. Will Google+ be able to continue gaining users that are willing to review businesses? Facebook took 4.5 years to reach 100 million users where it only took Google+ around eight months.
Execution will determine the winner. Google has shown that they can execute and grow Google into a social engine. Can Facebook show the same vigor and speed in turning a social engine to a search engine? By mid-2013, I think we will have a good idea who has the upper hand on social + local search.
Recent data from the Kelsey Group showed that nearly 20% of people were searching on social media sites. Given Facebook is the most used social site, one could infer that they've seen the majority of those searches.
Which is funny, because historically Facebook Search has been awful!
I, too, trust the recommendations of friends more than the Google algorithm and have on two recent occasions asked my Facebook friends for buying advice. In one case I was looking for a tree service, and in another a doctor. Now, I have an international friend base, so you might think my result set wasn't good. By filtering, however, e.g. "Hey New Orleans dads..." for instance, I was able to get the proper result set.
I'm excited at the prospect of recommendation-like discovery without having to wait for the responses to come in.
We'd love to know what our fellow local search friends and readers think about the new Facebook search opportunity. Let us know in the comments below!