Facebook Can do Popularity, Just Don’t Call it Search
There’s no shortage of speculation about Facebook ultimately displacing Google and taking over search. For starters, Americans spend more than 6 times as much time on social networks as they do searching. More importantly, search engines such as Bing and Blekko have already integrated Facebook’s Open Graph into their SERPs.
But while Google has only touched 1% of social search, Facebook has some way to go before it can fully take Google’s place on the world wide interwebs. You see, search engines are about discovery — i.e. finding new things — and Facebook isn’t quote ready to help users find something entirely new.
Search in a Popularity Contest
Facebook’s weakness as a search tool is rooted in its very potential as a social tool: namely, that it creates a completely subjective user-experience.
Facebook filters content in my feed based on the activity of my social network. The content I see is based on what the people in my personal network have liked or shared. So what I see is based very much on what’s popular with the people I know.
And search engines that have integrated Facebook data to order their SERPs similarly leverage that subjectivity. While Bing takes into account how popular a piece of content is on Facebook, Blekko offers users the option of using Facebook Connect to personalize search results according to what’s popular in their own, personal network.
A page’s popularity, however, is not a reliable indication of its relevancy. Just because a piece of content is popular (with my friends), that doesn’t mean that it’s a quality piece of content or is objectively valuable.
Google’s SERP Quality Control
Google has become the search behemoth it is because it’s been able to provide quality, relevant search results that are free of spam. Sure, Google has leaned more and more toward a subjective experience recent years by personalizing search results. But the foundation of its SERPs are based on a web that’s curated by independent, third-party sites.
There are many things, onsite and off, that Google uses to gauge the relevancy of a web page. But the linchpin of Google’s algorithm hinges on backlinks (hence it’s original name BackRub).
Basically, the more links there are to a page (and it’s top level domain), the better chance that that page has at ranking in the SERPs. And the more relevant a page is to a keyword, the more weight that a link from that page will carry on a related keyword.
Of course, Google’s algorithm is a lot more intricate than that, but the point is that Google’s backlink-based algorithm is nuanced — i.e. it’s a complex formula with a multitude of variables.
Facebook’s Like, however, is simplistic and straight-forward. It either “is” or “is not”. And while it offers Facebook the ability to track users across the web, there is little depth or relevance to any given “Like”.
Facebook (and the search engines leveraging its Open Graph) can determine that x-amount of people liked something, but it can’t determine anything about how relevant that something is. It has no understand of nuance or intention, something Google has become quite good at. Yes, Facebook can say that something is of interest (or not) to the people in my personal network, but that’s no indication that it’s relevant, per se.
Facebook can only see that someone likes another site/page. But It has no way of judging whether that person’s opinion is relevant.
Google, however, places more weight on a link from a site that already ranks well on the term its using to link to another page. And that first site’s rankings is determined by how many other relevant sites (with relevant content) link back to it.
With Google, rankings are moderated by third-party sites with a trusted history of producing keyword dense content on a consistent basis. All Facebook can offer, for the meantime, is a popularity contest. In other word, Facebook can determine that I’m interested in something, but it has no way of determining that I have idea what I’m talking about (liking). And, I know what you are about to say, but both systems can be equally gamed.
Google’s ranking factors offer users considerably higher quality SERPs than anything Facebook can currently offer. And a big part of that has to do with how Google has spent year indexing the web and how it all ties together.
Of course, other search engines such as Bing and Blekko crawl and index the web, and they’re tapping into Facebook’s Open Graph. But Google might not have to worry just yet.
For starters, no one has ever posed a viable threat to Google’s share of the search market. Second, Google’s Android operating system is allowing it to corner the next frontier of search — mobile.
Basically, it seems that the next big thing in search will probably be a single entity that masters both search and social technology. While that could mean Facebook figuring our search and how to index the web, it could also mean Google mastering social.
Granted, Google still hasn’t managed to succeed in the social space yet. But Android might give the kind of social data they need to socialize their search algorithm. After all, as mobile integrates further into everyday life through systems like Android, Google could access both location data and data from the social apps that users install on their devices. This could be the social relevance Google has been searching for.
About CT Moore
A former Staff Editor here at Revenews.com, CT Moore is a recovering agency hack with over 8 years experience leveraging search and social media to help brands meet their business goals online. By day, he heads up Search and Social at Publikit, a boutique web dev agency in Montreal, and runs Socialed, a digital consultancy that provides strategy to both SMBs and enterprise level companies in the tech, entertainment and travel industries. CT has worked with both start-ups and multinational brands alike, including Acquisio, Microsoft Canada, and Luxury Retreats. CT is also an accomplished blogger, podcaster, and speaker who educates groups and companies on how they can effectively leverage different online channels.