The news that Facebook is considering a venture into search has sparked much debate in tech circles. Since its very inception, Facebook has striven to integrate itself ever more visibly into every facet of our lives; its recent IPO and subsequent floatation on the stock market accelerating this desire for ubiquitous omnipresence even further. But are plans to enter the search market one step too far for the social networking behemoth?
My initial reaction was that this is a step too far. Although no technology company is ever untouchable (look at the declining fortunes of Nokia), Google’s dominance of the search market and the web economy shows no signs of slowing.
This venture into search actually parallels Google’s avenue into social media: Google Plus was launched last year in an attempt to leverage the company’s ownership of search and content and thus grab a slice of an extremely lucrative social pie. But even the most ardent Google fan would have to admit that this venture has not been met with the success the search giant would have hoped for.
As of September 2012, Google Plus boasts 400m accounts, which, at half of Facebook’s membership, gained in only a year, is a staggering achievement. But the truth is that many of these accounts have simply been given automatically to people who use various other Google products, such as Gmail – and this may go some way to explaining the low engagement rate.
And this is not to say that Google Plus is a failure: it has a beautiful UI, its integration with search results allows us to see content publicly ‘+1’d’ in search results and features such as hangouts and circles have been lauded by many tech commentators and consumers alike. But despite this, the platform has simply failed to inspire the wider general public in the way that Facebook has.
So if Google, a company with almighty clout, has ‘failed’ to dent Facebook’s ownership of social, what makes Facebook think that it can take on search?
There’s a lot of compelling arguments to suggest that Facebook is in a good position to do just that. Search links people with content, and Facebook is one of the biggest sources of content generation on the Internet. Facebook is a visible part of our everyday lives and a digital destination that we use frequently throughout the day. Adding a service such as search makes it easier for users, right?
I’m not so sure.
You see, for me, one of the big appeals of social media is its serendipitous nature. I like browsing through my feeds, stumbling over amusing photos that friends have shared on Facebook; reading an article that a colleague has posted on Twitter; discovering some amazing research from a contact on LinkedIn. Browsing and discovering are wonderful features of social media – and browsing is very different to search.
When we search for something, we actively know what we want; what we are looking for. And tools such as Google and Bing serve that need perfectly. When I log into Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, I don’t go there because I’m after a specific piece of information – I go there to discover. And that’s crucial.
Social media connects me with content, which, granted, is exactly what search does. But when I visit my social channels, I’m engaging in a journey of discovery. I don’t know whether I’ll stumble across a fascinating piece of research shared by a colleague, or a photograph of a cat dressed in a cowboy outfit posted by a sibling. If I knew exactly what content that I wanted to consume, the chances are that I would have turned to Google to seek out my insightful research article. Or cat picture…
You could argue that Facebook is in a position to offer both – serendipitous moments of discovery shared by friends, as well as providing a search feature. But, in my opinion, Facebook needs to be very careful that it doesn’t dilute its proposition as the world’s foremost social networking platform – which it is – by trying to model itself into a sole hub for people’s entire internet experience.
For me, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google – all of these channels have been so successful because they own their particular features – and are damn good at what they do. Trying to shoehorn a service offered ten times better elsewhere leaves a company in danger of diluting the core proposition that made it so successful in the first place.
And for me, that’s why I believe that Facebook should search outside of search for any new additions to its popular service.