Facebook Patent Hints at Social Search Plans

Last week Facebook was awarded a patent that covered essential elements of social search. Patents don’t always predict products, but this one was acquired by Facebook when it purchased intellectual property from Friendster, which perhaps indicates new and active intent. Is Facebook is building an alternative to Google? Possibly. Let’s examine the state of social search and its potential implications for online media.

There is a “social will replace search” theory that runs something like this: Overwhelming amounts of data, along with SEO gaming, make Google’s traditional approach to ranking results less effective than it once was. And driven by social networks, a passive, feed-based user interface is usurping the old “seek and search” style of online navigation.

The big search engines like Google and Bing are already incorporating social signals into their ranking schemes, and into how their results are presented to users. It’s likely, in fact, that both social and search will co-exist as navigation modes. Some observers may have over-interpreted back-and-forth traffic among top sites (Google, Yahoo, MSN, Facebook) as an indication that Facebook drives more viewers than Google. A lot of cross-site traffic for them is the natural flow of an online session — check mail, headlines, social network — rather than a search- or feed-directed path. And sometimes a user’s friends aren’t the best source of relevance. Seeking medical information rather than a preferred dentist, or a convenient airline ticket rather than a fun vacation destination, will remain directed queries based on authority and the breadth of information coverage.

Social Search Competitors

If Facebook’s creating a social search alternative, Google is the big target; it has, after all, over $25 billion in search advertising revenue. It both integrates and segregates social technologies. Personalized social search that displays content shared or posted by a user’s friends is buried under More Search Tools on Google’s results page. It puts real-time search — licensed Twitter results and what public Facebook content it can crawl — a little higher on the page, and sprinkles in a few real-time results on its main results pane. With its existing strength in ad networks, Google is in the best position to build out real-time advertising.

Microsoft’s Bing, which isn’t really gaining ground on Google yet, has partnered with Facebook to gain more access to Facebook data like friends, status updates and Likes. Bing’s results feature Facebook and other social content a little more prominently than Google’s do, but Bing also offers a separate social content-only search function.

Other social search players include Topsy, which searches real-time content and keeps a deeper archive of tweets than Twitter does, and blekko, which uses human editors to create authoritative indices of results, partly by blocking what they determine low-quality sites. WOWD was building a social search engine, now concentrates on personalized feed filters. OneRiot ceded its real-time search to Topsy while it attempts to build an ad network.

What Facebook Might Do

The Facebook patent covers ranking and displaying search results by their popularity among a searcher’s contacts and those removed by a few degrees of separation. In fact, Facebook nearly does this already. When users start typing in the search field, Facebook auto-suggests content that’s been Liked by the user’s friends. Carefully adding friends of friends would expand the results index.

Facebook could be thinking of using its patent offensively to gain licensing royalties. But although Google’s patent portfolio isn’t as big as Microsoft’s, it’s pretty diverse, and even contains a lot of social technologies. So maybe the patent’s just defensive.

Building a full-blown search engine requires attempting to index the entire Web. Even if Facebook relied on its users to do the indexing, the results would be spotty. Facebook search would no doubt do well on entertainment, baby photos and sports trash talking. But that medical content and those travel arrangements would likely remain thin. Chances are, Bing remains Facebook’s search engine strategy.

Question of the week

What is Facebook’s social search strategy?
Relevant Analyst
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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