I love data. Some new search engine usage stats from Experian Hitwise for September 2012 search got me thinking about the future of search. According to the data, there were slightly over 2 billion (2.126B) visits to the top five search engines during the week ending September 15th, representing approximately 90% (91.46%) of all search engine traffic. The top search term was “Facebook,” representing 3.28% of ALL searches. Not surprisingly, Facebook was also the number one website visited after search as well, capturing 6.62% of all post-search traffic (don’t ask me why 2X as many people ended up at the FB website as searched it; maybe this number represents the lost tribe of G+ users).
Here’s where things get interesting. Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines while speaking at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco by nonchalantly pointing out that his social network is generating over 1 billion queries each day on its site, “and we’re not even trying.”
This comment lead to a flurry of speculation and protestation, not to mention a 4% bump in Facebook’s share price (makes you wonder what might have been had Zuck actually spent the last year courting Wall Street investors and evangelizing Facebook’s inherent value instead of ignoring them).
FACEBOOK SEARCH? NEVER!
The naysayers of the Facebook-as-search-engine concept have voiced the same complaint for years now. It revolves around the intent argument. Simply put, users go to search engines like Google when they need to perform a specific action, while they hang out on Facebook to commune with friends. In other words, people are on Facebook not to search for products and services, but to socialize, and as such can only be compelled to buy if they are “pushed” into doing so by some other activity or incentive.
The argument does have merit. This is why Google’s Adwords product is raking in tens of billions of dollars per year, while Facebook’s ad programs struggling to make a few billion. It also touches on the push vs pull argument so prevalent in marketing circles these days: advertisers on Facebook have to “push” their products onto Facebook’s wary social users, whereas Google advertisers can “pull” visitors to their advertisers’ products because they are already on the site looking for them anyway.
Far be it for me play the role of provocateur; after all, in principle I am a fairly staunch supporter of inbound “pull” marketing, believing it to be a more efficient and cost-effective solution for most businesses.
Having said that, dismissing Facebook as a haven for “push” marketing is dangerous on two counts: 1) such thinking blinds us to an important evolution taking place in search 2) it also presumes the Facebook platform is a static, and cannot be tweaked slightly to capitalize on said evolution.
SEARCH IS GETTING SOCIAL MOBILE LOCAL
As people continue to integrate various social networks into their daily lives, they are starting to find answers to their questions and solutions to their problems on social networks rather than search engines. In a recent post, PaidContent reported that UK search traffic was down significantly in August during the Olympics. PaidContent asked Experian Hitwise if this was evidence that searchers were moving to social:
“Absolutely…The key thing here is the growing significance of social networks as a source of traffic to websites. Search is the still the number-one source of traffic, but social networks are growing as people increasingly navigate around the web via recommendations from Twitter, Facebook etc.”
The proliferation of mobile devices-and the apps that run on them-is hastening this trend. People are increasingly using their smartphones and tablets to connect to the Internet. It’s common knowledge that the majority of social users are accessing these sites via mobile devices.
As users become more comfortable with their mobile devices, they become more dependent on them to provide simplicity and convenience to their busy lives. People are looking for integrated, realtime, geo-local solutions; they want one-stop shops; they are seeking ways to kill two (or three) birds with one stone.
IS THERE ANY SEARCH IN MY SOCIAL?
In steps Facebook. Remember at the beginning of this post when I pointed out that Facebook is the number one search term, and the most visited post-search website? What if Facebook did have a search engine? No, I don’t mean a search capability within the site, I mean an external search engine a la Google, Bing, etc. baked right into the site.
I can already hear the naysayers’ protestations:
Q: “How would Facebook ever generate enough search traffic to compete?”
A: Almost a billion total users-and a billion daily intra-site queries-is not a bad place to start.
Q: “Facebook could never lure advertisers away from Google platforms”
A: Come on. Show advertisers the daily search numbers, and they’ll show you the money. Period.
Q: “Facebook users will not like it, and will never use it.”
A: I don’t buy this one at all. Your offering me the convenience of a search engine on the site I use most every day? On the site I am constantly getting ideas that I want to investigate further via search? Sounds like a one-stop shop for me (I like those).
For Zuck and crew, an external search engine integrated with Facebook’s site would kill three birds with one stone:
- Facebook could hold true to its original stated vision for the network, keeping Facebook pristine from, or at least minimizing, advertising.
- It could essentially copy the Google Adwords model of “pull” advertising, raking in the big ad dollars and courting big media by re-directing the bulk of its advertising ops to the new social engine.
- Facebook would be able to build this new search engine from the ground up with mobile in mind, thus solving the nettling question of how to monetize mobile without alienating its user base.
What’s the worst that could happen? Facebook creates the G+ of search engines? If so, Zuck and crew would not really be any worse off than they are now. Besides, if the world is going social, mobile, local, and lessening its reliance on search right along with the PC, I’d rather have a robust social network with a crappy search engine than vice versa (to offense to my peeps in Mountain View).
Though this is just one man’s opinion, if Facebook had a decent search engine, I’d probably have it up all the time. I wonder how many others would do the same?