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What Facebook Learned from Search

Is Facebook really trying to steal Google’s fire? Should we just call it Faceboogle? Maybe not. See the full post in the extended entry; it was originally published in MediaPost.

What Facebook Learned from Search

Picasso_cubismImagine if Picasso painted a search engine results page from Google.
It would probably wind up looking like Facebook, which continually
draws inspiration from search engines as it rolls out its services for

What Facebook did was take the classic search channels of paid
search, natural search, and paid inclusion and adapt them to its own
platform. Compared to search, Facebook’s ad targeting isn’t quite as
precise as advertising to people who explicitly express interest with
their queries. Yet compared to contextual advertising, Facebook offers
the proposition of targeting to explicitly expressed interests on
members’ profiles, and marketing is further amplified with the web of
member connections often described as the “social graph.”

Natural Search: News Feed

The News Feed on Facebook is the differentiator (for now) that makes
Facebook best positioned to make great content go viral. In case you’ve
avoided Facebook for fear of learning your colleagues are in
relationship situations they can only describe as “it’s complicated,”
the News Feed, which serves as the homepage when Facebook members log
in, is an update of what a selection of your friends are doing on the
site. You see notices when friends add other friends, post public
messages, add or interact with applications, post photos, join groups,
and engage in other activities.

The News Feed, updated with 40 to 60 listings per day, parallels
search engines’ natural search listings and always answers the query
“What are my friends doing on Facebook today?” Facebook actually wants
to take this a step further, retooling the question to “What are my
friends doing online today?” That’s the point of Beacon, one of
Facebook’s newest innovations where select publishers allow consumers
to broadcast their actions on those sites to their Facebook profile.
When you rent a movie at Blockbuster.com, for instance and you’re also
logged in to Facebook, you’ll see an alert that your movie selection
will be shared on Facebook, with an opt-out mechanism available. Some
of your friends will then see that in your News Feed, and others will
see it when they visit your profile page.

Beacon is one way that marketing messages can appear in the News
Feed. Another is when a friend joins a marketer’s Page, which marketers
can set up for free, or add a marketer’s application. The optimization
isn’t around the News Feed, though; it’s around the content, which must
be designed to go as viral as possible.

The most striking word that came up repeatedly when I heard someone
from Facebook present was “algorithm.” It’s the algorithm that
determines how many stories appear in the News Feed, which users
members share connections with, and which types of actions are
involved. It knows which friends you’re most closely connected to, not
just based on how you interact with them, but by factoring in when you
and your friends independently interact with the same content. This
algorithm might know who your friends are better than you do.

Paid Search: Ad Space

Facebook creatively refers to the area to the left of the News Feed
(and any other page) as the Ad Space. The major difference between the
Ad Space and paid search is that there’s no mistaking that the Facebook
ads there are in fact ads. Whether with search ads or even contextual
links, it’s sometimes hard for consumers to discern where the content
ends and the ads begin. Few consumers should have any confusion on
Facebook. For more on Facebook ads, see the previous columns on ad targeting by interest and member responses to targeting.

Paid Inclusion: Sponsored Stories

Paid inclusion has served as the hybrid blend of natural and paid
search results. With search, paid inclusion links are never labeled as
ads, as the engines that have offered this (Yahoo being the
longest-standing advocate) have said sites only pay to get included,
not to improve their ranking. With Facebook, Sponsored Stories appear
in the News Feed and are clearly labeled as sponsored, but they reap
many of the same benefits as “organic” News Feed stories. Sponsored
Stories also include Social Ads, which appear when a member’s friend
interacts with an advertiser’s Facebook Page or Application.

Now What?

One of the classic questions with search engine marketing is how to
prioritize using natural and paid search. With Facebook, those
questions are even more challenging, since it’s harder to determine the
return on investment (if you get 10,000 people to add your Facebook
Page as a friend, what’s that worth?) and best practices are just
starting to emerge.

The cheapest options are the self-service ads, which can be tested
on shoestring budgets, especially when limiting their placement to the
Ad Space (running them as Sponsored Stories requires significantly
higher bids) and Facebook Pages, which are available for free but must
be promoted somehow (Facebook’s preference: through advertising).
Pages, if done well, also require development resources, just like
Applications, and Pages require even more management resources in terms
of monitoring comments and updating the page. The immediate goal is to
attract more clicks by going viral and appearing in members’ News
Feeds. The process shares much in common with search engine

Facebook draws inspiration from search engines and how marketers use
them, but Facebook’s not trying to be Google. Google, after all, is
best at sending its users to other sites. While Facebook can do that
with Beacon, it is much more interested in drawing its members deeper
into Facebook and emerging as the newest portal.

So who is Facebook trying to be? Can you think of any portals that
became a major name in search while experimenting with their social
media strategy, one that still offers paid inclusion, and one that,
like Facebook, is repeatedly rumored as a takeover target for
Microsoft? That’s the company that needs to worry about getting
outfoxed by Facebook’s algorithm.

People reacted to this story.
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Comments to: What Facebook Learned from Search
  • Avatar
    November 20, 2007

    Hi, David —
    Thanks for reporting on the fascinating new features within facebook!overlay” title=”Jiglu topic tag: Facebook”>Facebook. Here’s another area of possible opportunity that I see for facebook!overlay” title=”Jiglu topic tag: Facebook”>Facebook: Email. Well, not QUITE email.
    As someone who grew up (at least in my professional life) using email, it fascinates me that so many of my friends on facebook!overlay” title=”Jiglu topic tag: Facebook”>Facebook choose to send “Messages” to me within that gated community. The advantages of this is, of course, are two-fold:

    • No spam – only friends can message me
    • A richness that comes from knowing much about the sender’s situation as he / she sent the message

    Can referral messaging programs be far behind? We certainly see something like that today, with the installation of certain new widgets “requiring” us to tell 20 of our friends. So what about other benefits — perhaps offered outside of facebook!overlay” title=”Jiglu topic tag: Facebook”>Facebook — promoted virally in messages among friends and assisted by widgets and Beacon tracking?
    In your example, perhaps a Blockbuster rental of films from a particular studio, on a particular day, would count toward a donation to a favorite charity.
    It’s exciting stuff. Thanks for offering a lot to consider!

  • Avatar
    November 21, 2007

    Hi David —
    Great post – and Jeff Larche’s follow-up is particularly interesting. I linked to this post from my blog in a posting I wrote about my rude discovery of Beacon this week. Thanks for shedding some light on this new application from a search perspective.


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