Facebook could make billions in search. Here’s how.

People search on Facebook. All the time.

Most of Facebook’s efforts on search, have focused on the search box — the one that looks like Google’s. People search on Facebook all the time. But they don’t search in the search box, they search in status field.

Facebook

If Facebook copies Google’s definition of search, they will (and have) failed.

What do I mean by people search on Facebook? Consider this example:

SearchFB

This is no different than a Google search for “Senegal”. Except, I am asking my friends, in a highly inefficient manner. There’s a high likelihood that someone in my friend network (of 600+ people) has been to Senegal or knows something about Senegal. But my post doesn’t efficiently reach those people. FB should identify this as a query for “Senegal” and present this post to my friends who have been to Senegal.

That creates a better search experience because I get expertise from people I actually trust.

If you expand distribution to friends of friends, you are almost guaranteed to find someone who has an answer. In this case, in an efficient way, my friend Mandy has expanded the search to her friend in the last comment.

It could either be highly prioritized in news feed for them, or they could get a notification that says “Your friend is looking for information about Senegal? Want to help him out?”

Known results that are accessible to the user based on permissions — photos, check ins, status updates — could be presented immediately.

Modifying Facebook in this way also helps improve the social experience and increases the liquidity in the market. By expanding the distribution to my friends most likely to know the answer, I get an answer faster. This also opens up the possibility of creating new relationships or renewing old ones.

Scenario:

  • I haven’t talked to friend Bill in a while.
  • I post a “query” for Senegal.
  • FB knows that Bill has been to Senegal. (Pictures posted from there, status updates from there, logins from there, etc.)
  • FB surfaces the “query” to Bill.
  • Bill sees it and responds.
  • Bill and I reconnect.

Fact-based queries vs. taste-basted queries

This all works better for matters of taste vs. fact. Google is going to give you a much better, quicker answer for queries like the “value of pi” or “5+2” or “weather in Miami”.

Yes, I could ask this in Facebook — and I did:

pi4

More than an hour later, I still had no answer. (And my non-technical friends, who didn’t know what I was doing, would think I’m an idiot.)

But those are matters of fact — and, by the way, have zero advertising against them.

Think about queries like “plumber,” “dentist,” “lawyer,” “auto insurance”. Those are queries of taste. And, it may shock people, but that’s where you make your money in search! Travel, law, professional services and insurance are among Google’s top money makers.

While many people, including Wall Street analysts, treat search as a monolith, search is actually a collection of verticals. Each has different levels of monetization. Many fact-based queries have no advertising against them.

Facebook doesn’t have to solve the queries of fact. Leave those to Google. (It could, but people aren’t searching FB for those.)

Facebook can pick off the higher-value queries and the ones that are most likely to add to the FB experience and value proposition: a place where you come to interact with your friends.

FB can also use these “queries” as a way to turn its ad into higher revenue, intent-based ads. In addition to your friends comments, you’d see — clearly identified — responses from advertisers to your query.

Someone who posts a query “anyone know of a good hotel in London?” could be presented with an advertiser comment for “hotels in London.” This presents a highly relevant ad that someone could turn to immediately. (It could also be time delayed — if I don’t get a response from a friend, the advertiser comment shows up.)

Often, you’re forced into a space by business needs or the stock market demanding that you have a “search” or “social” strategy. Or there’s a hole in you business model. See also: wireless carriers in payments, video, content, pictures.

The easiest thing to do is to try to copy someone else who has been successful. But if they’re already dominant, how are you going to win? You can’t just create something to plug a hole in your business strategy; you need to plug a hole in the customer’s needs.

When designing new products, you should figure out what makes you different and better. Then build off that. Facebook needs to play to its strength: a connected community where people share with each other.