Tech giants are never satisfied. They’re always adding new features, new products, and new services to gradually expand their respective empires and make life easier for their core customers. When Google first started, it was merely a web-based search engine; today, it’s associated with dozens of products, from email to navigation to physical mobile devices. Facebook has seen similar growth; originally serving only as a way for individuals to connect with and message each other, it’s now a much more interactive and functional platform.
Slowly but surely, Facebook has been probing its way into traditional Google territory. It’s starting to blur the lines between what constitutes a search engine and what constitutes a social platform, and it marks a fork in the road where all our online platforms and service might someday blend into one.
The first sign that Facebook was trying something big in the search world was back in December of 2014. Up until that point, Facebook had partnered with Bing as a search provider to give users some degree of search capabilities within the site, and access to Facebook data from Bing’s main search engine. In December, Facebook broke the partnership and released their own version of a search function, for use within its own site. Users could then search for people, posts, and old information using Facebook’s onsite algorithm.
The search functionality itself wasn’t exactly revolutionary—there was only a finite amount of content available for any given user. Plus, onsite search functions are relatively common, even for small businesses. The significance came in the fact that Facebook broke off a partnership with a highly capable search leader in order to create something of its own.
Facebook continued adding functions for its users earlier this month, when it released an “add a link” option for its status update box. When a user visits his/her profile and starts typing a status, he/she can now click “add a link” in addition to the older functions of adding pictures or a location to an update. When clicked, the user can then enter a number of search terms to find what he/she is looking for, then selecting a link and a preview to post.
This in-post search function bypasses Google entirely. Rather than leaving the app, accessing a search engine, finding the link, then returning to the app, users will be able to find the link immediately. It’s convenient for the user, but it’s also surprising to see that Facebook decided to develop its own algorithm rather than relying on some form of an embedded Google search.
For now, this search function is quite restricted. It can only be accessed for one sole purpose—finding links to include on a status update—but it could very well be the first step in a new direction for the social platform. With a small expansion and a few small functional tweaks, users could easily perform full online searches without ever leaving Facebook.
The expansion and online competition doesn’t end there. As of May 2015, Facebook is actively testing a new feature that would aggregate reviews from different food and travel publications in order to give solid recommendations to users. Current local directory services, like Yelp and TripAdvisor, are dominating the market, and Google is using their information to give its own recommendations in the form of local results and search rankings.
Should Facebook proceed with releasing this “Yelp alternative,” it would further blur lines for the social platform. Facebook would then be at once a social platform, messaging system, search engine, and local directory. And realistically, it’s unlikely that Facebook would stop there.
Bing has long been a competitor with Google, but with barely a quarter of Google’s search volume, it is seldom seen as more than a pesky thorn in the search giant’s side. Some of its ranking algorithms and search bots are different, but fundamentally, it doesn’t offer many different features from Google. This relationship has led many to believe that Google would never be able to be overtaken by a competing search engine.
Facebook stands apart in this crowd for one major reason, and that reason will fuel its potential success in practically any area it chooses to develop, in or out of its core wheelhouse. Facebook has access to over a trillion posts’ worth of user data, and it’s not afraid to use that data in formulating its results. The technology is probably far off, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Facebook could easily start formulating custom SERPs based on the preferences of individual users. Between user feedback and behaviors of friends and family, the entire scope of traditional search results could be transformed in a much more social and intuitive context.
It remains to be seen whether users will readily adopt all of Facebook’s extensive new features, but their loyalty to the platform appears to be unshaken. Facebook is still far and away the most dominant social media platform online, and now that it’s adding functionality to compete with Google, it could evolve to become the one-stop shop for the Internet. The implications this would have for SEO, social media marketing, and online branding in general could be catastrophic—or present a critical opportunity for brands to rebuild from the ground up. In any case, Facebook is about to have an interesting next few years.