Why Search is Facebook’s Tailbone

Who’s sitting on something that could be valuable but is not using it?  Facebook.

Last night at the Facebook press and analyst event, I had the opportunity to meet with product managers who asked me for my take on the Facebook strategy, which I gave a number of opinions. I did tell one product manager that “Facebook’s tailbone is search, you guys are sitting on the data and it’s not doing anything”. He spit out his drink into his cup, which got the attention of the PR “handlers” resulting in a chuckle from Scoble (being more disruptive than Scoble at a press junket is a feather I’ll now finally put in my cap). Some FBers told me they’d use that phrase to drive future innovation internally, so I wanted to ink this so it can be shared.

Tailbones on humans are a reminder of a feature that’s not being used, and the same thing applies to Facebook. While the product manager reminded me that there are millions of searches done on Facebook each day, I clarified that was often for finding profiles and pages, and the odd external search feature they have. Facebook doesn’t allow regular consumers to easily search the contents of their newsfeed, and that of their friends. If you see something interesting you can bookmark the page in your browser, or hire an expensive brand monitoring company at $100k+ a year, which of course, no consumer will do. While I’m sure there are a variety of apps that can cull and organize the data of your feed and your friends, it should be a native feature.

Facebook is on track to being about a $4 billion dollar company this year, with a Market Cap of $61b but that’s still dwarfed compared to search giant, Google. To put things in perspective, Google’s revenue was nearly $38b for 2011, with a current market cap of $231b and will surely increase year to year. Facebook allowing for search tools to be used within the network could quickly disrupt this market, allowing consumers, and brands to get additional value.   The data Facebook is sitting on can easily surpass the short term memory that the Twitter search tools offers, with truncated content.

SO what could Facebook build? They’re sitting on the world’s largest set of social data of people I actually know and care about, not some distant celeb in Twitter or a famous photographer in Google+, and could derive a tool that would help me to search my friends content and even my prior archives. This social search tool would also expend beyond their current search tools, I searched for top restaurants, but it returned pages, apps, and then finally posts of people I follow who had the crude word ‘restaurant’ in it, it really doesn’t show intelligence.

To really hammer in my point, I’ve posted pictures of my Facebook visit last night on Google+ as it will be easier to find in Google, Bing, Yahoo, and any other search engine that evolves.  Facebook is sitting on a trove of social data that hasn’t fully surfaced, they’ve an opportunity to evolve and truly be a dominant force in finding content –not just served on a newsfeed.

When Facebook launches a worthy search tool, it could be a strong contender in the search wars, evolve that tailbone.

25 Replies to “Why Search is Facebook’s Tailbone”

  1. Yep, you’ve nailed it. Too often I have wanted to search for something in Facebook. Only to remember … Oh yeah, there is no native search capability.

    Your point here is spot on … “Facebook is sitting on a trove of social data that hasn™t fully surfaced” — When they decide to monetize this there revenues and valuations will go thru the roof.

    The risk is … Will they do it in a half-assed and non-user friendly way. Meaning, will they kowtow to the corporations and those that are willing to pay the “Facebook Toll” to have access to the best data. My guess is yes. Why? because they can. As I’ve said many times … we get what we pay for. We (collectively we) have agreed to the Facebook Terms of Service in order to use it. Again, we get what we pay for.

  2. Jeremiah, what do you think is the business case for NOT pursuing search? Is Facebook choosing to monetize that data internally through advertising sales that they control? Would opening that data provide an alternative, more profitable path at this stage of the search game?

  3. You can’t use something that doesn’t work. Their entire search algorithm, much like their site, needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Sloppy, hasty architecture slapped together with new stuff piled on top. Try using their search to find anything meaningful, or active…. you can’t. I am still looking for the corners of FB that have real activity or community…… there is none.

    I think a good indicator is the site security vote – about 700,000 of a billion voted? That is a completely passive, dead user base. Brand pages don’t work other than vapid storytelling…. Facebook is dealing with so many fundamental problems, they couldn’t possibly fix and monetize the search….

  4. I’m curious what exactly was so surprising about your comment. Did the PM really think that just because people are using FB search a lot, that it is an effective, successful or innovative tool? Or was it just the “tailbone” comparison.

    It is possibly the worst part of the entire platform. It helps you find pages or profiles when you already know what you are looking for. That is it. The fact that they’ve started testing out sponsored placements in search results before actually making search worth using is not a great indicator of FB’s ability to keep innovating. Ugh.

  5. I thought about that too Susan. They’re strategy has been to avoid search, (taking on a giant headon) and be about streams of your friends. That’s been a fantastic model for real time, but it’s not enough.

  6. Search in the context of searching my friend’s feeds, activities, etc is not really search. Well it is, but it’s still social networking. Building and monetizing that type of search is not much more profitable than what FB is already doing. Search, in the context of “I’m searching for the best price on an iPad”, or “I’m looking for a plumber!” is valuable, and that’s Google’s world. Yes, if FB could build that, that would indeed be a ludicrous revenue stream that would justify their huge valuation.

    But FB is nowhere near the position to even compete. You need data, and FB doesn’t have that data. The data you need is trillions of crawled pages, and terabytes of data on what those web pages are about… in short, you need 10+ years to get it right AND to get that data, which is what Google did.

  7. Tailbones may not be used in humans but just go ahead and break one! A fractured sacrum coccyx is NOT a pleasant condition. Hopefully Facebook won’t break their tailbone – lest Facebook might be sitting on an inflatible donut and wincing with pain for a long time!

  8. I think part of the fundamental problem is that people neither like nor trust this platform. Even supposing these guys could surface a decent search technology, would you really trust what Zuck comes back with? Seriously?

  9. I think internal search would be great for the site. It can be difficult to find things that are from years past. But their core competency is not search (like the search engines), but rather connecting us. Plus, an intuitive user experience with search would be beneficial. Also, I think they need an easier way to dig through your photo data.

  10. I assume that search is on their radar but that their relationship/agreement with Bing prevents the pursuit of a comprehensive search engine. I can’t imagine that they’ve not recognized the potential opportunity, but rather that they’ve made a conscious effort not to compete with Bing.

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