Can Facebook Build A Better Search? Should It?


The road to Facebook’s mid-term success is paved with search goodness, many believe. When the stock starts tanking, the top execs apparently believe a good thing to do at a shareholder’s meeting is make an opaque reference to building a better search engine.
“Build a better search” is an anthem many of us in the search business have been hearing for well in excess of a decade. Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned (among other things) plans to create a better way to connect intent with social subject matter in a way that can be sold to the highest bidder. At least, that’s what I think he meant to say.
Facebook is far from a Wall Street darling for more reasons than can I can mention here. The real question is: can the world’s biggest repository of noise be fixed by solving the world’s content-to-subject-matter problems? Or is this just another ploy to keep investors from asking too many questions? Is it really what Facebook should be focusing on right now?

Dissecting Intent

I’ve often heard reference to a low ad-to-content ratio as a leading benefit of Facebook. While keeping ad noise to a minimum is a good thing, I believe the formula used to arrive at this low number is flawed at its foundation. I’ll come back to this in a minute. First, let’s talk about a slightly larger issue.
People make the bulk of clicks and online purchases. Really, they do. People go to search engines to find stuff and leave to buy it. But Facebook doesn’t want people to leave, so they have to find a way to serve people ads, get them to buy stuff and stay longer.
The best way to accomplish the aforementioned tasks is by turning people into ads and forcing brands to conduct their commerce within the gates of Facebook.
The problem is people don’t like to be turned into ads without their knowledge or permission. A class action brought by five Facebook members opposed to just such a practice late last year has yet to be settled. Last month, a federal judge rejected Facebook’s proposed $20 million dollar settlement.
And as far as confining brands to your commerce and content format, well, with the billions brands spend on building their own sites, I can’t imagine the childish arrogance of expecting that fantasy to come true.

Overabundance Of Ads

I know I’m getting older because I’ve lost count of the number of times a technology company has tried to sell me a better search. I’ve spent countless hours in strategy meetings helping the big household-name companies strategize (please click “add to dictionary” on that last word) on how they can approach not only the ad market, but every living connected being via search results.
The reality of search evolution as it relates to the ad market is that every single innovation after added keyword-driven “sponsored” results on the page has come from Google.
Ad system refinements like an intuitive, fast interface helped catapult Google into the number one spot because, let’s face it, advertisers always favor the path of least resistance. Compared to Yahoo (which acquired after it changed its name to Overture), Google’s ad interface was super sleek, and people like sleek.
Google ad targeting and stringent relevancy requirements helped people get better ads while helping save advertisers from themselves by precluding them from broadcasting across competitive, obnoxiously repetitive, and most importantly, irrelevant channels.
Facebook, by contrast, suffers from way too many ads driven at much too high a frequency from advertisers with only self-imposed relevancy demands. And unless you are using third-party ad management software to manage Facebook ads along with a third-party Facebook analytics suite, you are missing the social ad boat completely.
In other words, Facebook is making it harder for advertisers, agencies and the people seeing ads. Fix all that, and then talk to me about your search engine.
The kid isn’t alright.

Open Letter To Zuck

Dear Mark,
The Google guys realized they needed to hire an adult CEO. It is one of the best things that ever happened to their company, and it is time you did the same.
I am not the first person to suggest this course of action.
PS:  Marissa already took the CEO gig at Yahoo, so she’s going to be tied up for at least a couple months. In the meantime, try to find someone else.
Facebook has to grow up a bit and get its current advertising offerings right before it will have a better anything. Right now, Facebook has a lot of noise, a fair amount of legal trouble, and a few good ideas.