Not too long ago, Mark Zuckerberg hinted that Facebook could eventually replace Web search, at least to some degree. A step in that direction came when Facebook announced a couple of weeks ago that it is vastly expanding its search capabilities by providing search results from all two trillion public posts within its social media platform.
Although Facebook previously had a large search volume of 1.5 billion searches a day, those searches did not include results from posts outside of friends’ posts or Pages liked, even if a post was otherwise publicly visible.
The biggest impact seems to be in real-time news, where hot topics and trending stories that normally come up in a News Feed can be searched. Results will display stories from publishers and media outlets, public posts and any links to stories in those posts, as well as conversations from your friends about the story.
So, what about local search? Right now, the search component does not search the web. While Facebook did previously partner with Bing to bring web results to searches, that is no longer part of the current search function on the Facebook app.
Yet Facebook has continued to emphasize its focus on mobile and Facebook Pages as a key marketing strategy for the millions of small businesses and advertisers with Facebook pages. In other words, Facebook’s ability to help small businesses market successfully must be accomplished through being found within the Facebook platform.
So, is Facebook effective for local search? Below, I analyze six strengths of Facebook that make local search a great opportunity for it and six challenges that Facebook faces for it to truly be a difference maker in local search.
1. Size Matters
Facebook’s purest strength is in sheer numbers. Its user base of one billion+ is a massive enough audience to attract advertisers with or without specific metrics on ROI. The perception is simply if enough eyes see it, the advertising will work — in other words, throw it at the wall, and surely something will stick, given the size of the wall.
Facebook’s dominance in mobile gives it unprecedented leverage. This year, for the first time, more people search for local businesses and services on mobile than on a PC. And according to comScore, Facebook is the #1 smartphone app by total time spent for almost half (48 percent) of its massive user base, and it is in the top three for almost 80 percent of its users. It is also the top mobile app in terms of unique visitors.
2. Facebook Knows What You Like
Search results may be targeted using the unique profile that Facebook has on each user. Facebook profiles may include location, check-ins, content viewed, content posted, time of social activity, likes and interests, groups and of course, the user’s overall friend network. The targeting capabilities that Facebook possesses on its user base are likely second to none in forming a complete and accurate profile of a user.
3. You Trust Your Friends
Facebook search results focus on what your friends are saying — an assumedly trusted and vetted source of information.
This concept is what spurred the partnership between TripAdvisor and American Express where reviews on the travel site were tagged with labels identifying when reviewers were Amex cardholders. Those reviews would be viewed by cardholders as more valuable in the belief that they are more likely to share common values and standards.
Likewise, opinions by Facebook friends are likely given greater weight than the opinions of strangers.
4. Posts Are Like Unsolicited Reviews
Public posts may also be viewed favorably as organic leads when compared to sponsored posts, similar to the way NextDoor benefits from the perception that its users are real neighbors without a commercial interest when it comes to recommending a local service or business.
Even though a Facebook user may not know the person writing the public post, presumably that person would have some accountability to his or her friends to which the post also appears.
5. It’s A Dream Life On Facebook
While not immune from negative posts, Facebook posts about local businesses seem to lean positive. Most people enjoy sharing good experiences online and like to portray that life is good. This will lead to generally positive posts that show up in search results on Facebook search for local businesses.
6. It’s A Big First Page
Facebook search results are scrolled continuously like its News Feed and essentially create one giant front page. At some point, users may stop scrolling, but this certainly offers a greater opportunity to be seen than on page two of Google.
Search results are also categorized into Posts, Pages, People, Photos/Video, Places, Groups, Apps and Events. That means there is more real estate for results and less of a Google SERP-type battle for page one, since there may effectively be nine page ones. Categorizing results might also be appealing to users, driving more search actions on the platform.
While Facebook’s strengths give it massive leverage to affect local search, there are still many challenges to making the search experience match what users have become accustomed to on Google.
1. Find People, Posts And Places That Matter Most
Places is towards the end on the list of categories you can search for, and it seems that’s the priority it’s been given by Facebook Search. Facebook Search’s web page tagline is “Find the people and posts that matter to you most.”
Tellingly, it omits the word “places,” despite the importance Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously assigned to it.
It is a rather surprising choice by Facebook, given its desire to penetrate the SMB market, when location is such a critical part of local search. As one example of the lack of functionality of Places, when searching for “Lawyers in Frisco,” Facebook Search returned only one result: “Tupy’s in Frisco,” a Mexican restaurant. (By the way, I’m referring to Frisco, Texas, here, a suburb of Dallas. Not San Francisco.)
2. Sometimes, No One Is On Page One
Having a Facebook page doesn’t guarantee you show up in results. While Facebook lauds its 40 million active SMB Facebook Pages, sometimes it doesn’t seem to be helping users find many of them. A search for “dance stores in Plano Texas” received one drop-down result for Karizmah Dance Shoes in Dallas from the search bar and no results in Places.
Yet a search specifically for “Sandy’s Dancewear” pulls up five Facebook pages of different locations of the store around the DFW Metroplex, including Plano and Frisco (both suburbs of Dallas). A search for “dance stores in Frisco” pulls up one result: a dance store in Oklahoma.
It appears Facebook has some work to do surrounding keywords that pull up relevant results despite not having an exact match. Exact match works for check-ins but doesn’t work well for getting found by consumers looking for a place to eat or shop.
3. Location Information Is Not Being Leveraged By Facebook
Mediative research shows more than half of mobile searches have local intent. Facebook uses location information frequently for posts and check-ins, yet Facebook Search isn’t displaying local information that would be useful in search results based on distance from you. Top search results for “Italian restaurants” were Pages from restaurants located in India and New York City, even though Facebook knows that I’m located in Texas.
Location is used in results listed under Places, and the same search for “Italian Restaurants” returned local stores. However, the majority of searches for local information on mobile phones occur while consumers are on the go, and one piece of information critical to users that are out and about is location of the store relative to the user.
The results (on mobile) in Places showed me a listing of restaurants with star ratings, but in order for me to find specific location information, I must click on the listing, then click on the map, then pinch out on the map to see where the restaurant is in relation to me. It would be very cumbersome to go through each restaurant to find out how far away they are when Facebook could just tell me.
4. Facebook’s Nearby Places Function Is Underutilized
Nearby Places is available as a separate search function that mobile users on iOS or Android can access via the app’s side toolbar. While search results here do show distance away from the user, it is limited in both function and scope. Users must search with predetermined categories such as “Mexican Restaurant” instead of “Tacos.”
While one result within 30 miles shows up as a suggestion when “Tacos” is typed into the search bar, there are seven enhanced listings within two miles under “Mexican Restaurants,” including Taco Ocho, half a mile away.
Thus, it is important for local businesses to make sure they are describing their stores using Facebook categories. But results using Facebook’s categories still seem quite limited, given that Yelp lists more than 25 Mexican restaurants within three miles.
5. Facebook’s Indexing Seems Spotty
Two searches I did for posts on places where I had checked in did not pull up, no matter what variety of words I used for the place (Jumbo Slice Pizza in Adams Morgan, DC, and Oasis Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio). Text in the post itself was searchable, even though the tagged place and friend in that same post were not. Searches for other places did find the searched terms in tagged places or friends.
6. The Fishbowl Effect
While public posts have always existed, they have certainly not been this visible. Facebook Search makes it much easier to filter public posts and find what is relevant. One of the strengths mentioned above is that public posts should be viewed as more trustworthy, organically created reviews.
However, just as behavior changes when you know you’re being watched, Facebook Search has the potential to taint that trust over time. Other review sites have been challenged with at least the perception among some that some reviews are not authentic. We’ll see if Facebook Search suffers any of those same critiques.
Facebook is also planning the introduction of an app called Notify. Notify will gather notifications from media and apps and set up stations or channels that break up that content into categories selected by the user.
Users can subscribe to receive content from specific publishers or to receive notifications from other apps, and the headlines are sorted into the various news feeds. Thus, a user can view news, weather, song releases, entertainment updates, calendar notifications, email updates or anything else that might arrive via a notification without leaving Facebook’s platform.
Together with Facebook’s Messenger app, these new developments might be a sign that Facebook is moving toward a lofty goal: keeping its massive user base completely captured within Facebook’s one-stop-shop platform.
If successful, Facebook could change the way that we access the internet; much of our consumption of online content would not occur on the World Wide Web — rather, it would be on a platform, Facebook’s platform.
As it stands today, Facebook does help drive more traffic to media publishers and their content — great for helping ad revenue on those sites. However, as publishers become more and more dependent on third parties such as Facebook to drive traffic to them, the concern over how ads are displayed on the platform, or even whether Facebook starts developing its own content, may impact publisher revenue in the future.
At this point, though, Facebook’s search capabilities do not appear to effectively replace those of the search engines and other local search players. The company still has significant work to do in order to make Facebook Search a consistent resource for consumers to find local businesses.
Understanding the limitations of Facebook in regard to local search is important for small businesses in how they use the social media platform to be found. It also can make a big difference to agencies helping their clients improve the effectiveness of the social media platform as part of a broader marketing strategy.
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