With a New Search Function, Can Facebook Finally Top Google?

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Facebook has one ultimate goal: to be the de facto Internet for its 1.5 billion active users. The social network’s updated search feature is the latest attempt to make that ambitious goal a reality.

Last week, Facebook’s search function got an upgrade. Rather than simply being a way to find a friend’s page or look up your cousin’s boyfriend’s name, search results will now show you relevant content from all 2 trillion Facebook posts in existence.

In other words, Facebook search now has similar capabilities as a Google search, except that it searches across Facebook content only—which, in itself, is like its own mini-Internet. It’s a major move, one that analysts see as the latest attempt to make Facebook behave more like the open web.

Craig Key, SVP of media for digital agency space150, believes the update is in line with Facebook’s attempt to consolidate digital identity on the platform. “I anticipate that the endgame for Facebook is to be the source of our singular digital identity,” he said. “To earn our trust, Facebook must also be the most relevant source of information in your life, and the extended search changes are a step in that direction.”

What Facebook wants to be when it grows up matters more to content marketers than just about anything else. Below, we dive in and break down the implications.

Searching for a fight (with Twitter and Google)

Want to know how the world is reacting to the presidential debate? That used to be Twitter’s job. Now, you can do the same on Facebook. Looking for that John Oliver clip from last week? There’s no need to scoot over to Google to find it anymore.

Or, at least, Facebook can hope that will be the case. With so many user profiles set to private—which will probably increase as this update sets off a chorus of privacy alarm bells—can Facebook search surface a wide enough array of relevant, real-time conversations to rival Twitter’s core function? While that seems unlikely, the updated search feature should at least reveal relevant content from publishers, which could satisfy some users enough to stop them from jumping to Twitter for breaking news.

What might me more frightening for Twitter is if users realize that Facebook can be used more like Twitter, something that Facebook is already facilitating with its Signal program that targets celebrities and journalists.

According to Natalie Edwards, marketing director for venture building firm sFBI,”Facebook users will start using more hashtags knowing that they have the ability to identify with others in a larger way.”

Experts seem to agree that Facebook doesn’t pose a dire threat to Google yet, but it does offer something Google can’t (though not for lack of trying.) “If you want to search for a Mexican restaurant nearby, you may still turn to Google or Yelp for an objective search,”Key said. “But if you are hoping to find that taco bar that you’ve seen one or two of your friends mention lately, Facebook may have that extra context that gets you there faster.”

Of course, the way to meaningfully sting Google is by infringing on its search ad revenue dominance, which currently is hanging around at 55 percent of the $81.59 billion market. While Facebook hasn’t introduced any new ad features that could help it take over some of market, “the new search function could open the door for new possibilities,” writes Arjun Kharpal for CNBC.

SEO for social

Facebook clearly means business with search, and as content marketers learned in the past when functionality changes pummeled their organic reach, when Facebook makes a change, the only option is to get on board. To capitalize on Facebook’s updated search functions, this means putting your SEO hat on, even for social content.

“Now that Facebook is searchable, it’s more important than ever to make your Facebook content searchable as well,” said Betsy McLeod, content marketing specialist at Blue Corona.

That means keywords, not clickbait. After all, while the headline “You’ll Never Believe What This Woman Woke Up To Find In Her Living Room. Incredible!” might play well momentarily on social media, it’s not well-positioned for search. If what the woman found was Al Sharpton playing Scrabble with Gwen Stefani, those two celebrity names had better be in that headline.

Of course, the convergence of SEO and content marketing should already have marketers thinking this way.

“If marketers haven’t been doing this already, now is a good time to start,” Key added, “because Facebook’s extended search is a lot like how the rest of the Internet works to deliver content to audiences.”

But, as McLeod warned, don’t completely abandon clickability. When content is surfaced in a Facebook search result, you’ll still be competing for the click, with the potential reward of reaching a broader audience.

“We’re now not only broadcasting information to people who have already indicated that they’re interested,” she said, “but anyone else who searches for whatever it is we’re serving.”

Search as a marketing tool

Facebook search has another application for content marketers: as a data-gathering tool. Access to Facebook’s deep well of user posts could be a treasure trove for marketers.

“It’s very likely that there will be [an] accompanying rise in the sophistication of social media monitoring platforms,” Edwards said. “The new Facebook search tool may very well be the biggest [thing] marketers use to develop and deploy content, rivaling the Google Keyword Planner and other SEO tools.”

It will take time to see if those monitoring platforms develop, or if marketers find other ways to mine meaningful user data from the new search tool. In the interim, Edwards advises, it will be beneficial for content marketers to monitor the new function closely and align their content and outreach with any trends they notice.

The long-term impact Facebook search has on the future of content marketing depends entirely on how—and if—people use it. With users being warned to fortify their privacy settings, the potential to mine useful data could be moot, unless people find value in posting publicly for a more Twitter-like experience.

If people don’t take to Facebook for breaking news or that taqueria their friends recently mentioned, marketers can’t expect their content to gain much traction there. Based on user behavior, Facebook search could very well go the way of Graph Search (remember that?) or the Facebook Home app (remember that?). Or, it could change everything.

Image by Gelner Tivadar

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