Facebook In Early Stage Search Engine Tests?

Question: have you conducted a search recently on Facebook? And have you noticed that something different, something huge was happening? AllFacebook went as far as saying that the social site was "declaring war on Google." So what is it all about? I'd personally call it "stealth search", no less. Read on.

If you were lucky enough to conduct a query that yielded such results on Facebook, you might have seen that now it does display entries for pages OUTSIDE of its own platform. Not pages, apps or profiles only but, yes indeed, third-party websites and links directly to those. I'll take you there but first, let's rewind a bit.

Search Potential?
Back in February, Brian Solis had published a post about Social Media Optimization being the new SEO. Everyone could clearly see that Facebook had search potential but at that point, theories were rife with no great concrete facts to sustain the transformation of the social site into a search platform with the amazing traction of over 400 million active users. Speculation reached all time highs after the company's f8 developers conference mid-April. That's when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the Open Graph API and the universal "Like" button to tie all the internet together via Facebook. At the time, Eli Goodman walked us through the Facebook search myth, evaluating the platform's real search potential in his What History Tells us About Facebook's Potential as a Search Engine posts, Part 1 and Part 2.

Test Drive: Search Potential!
Now the time has come to get more concrete and this is big. Here are a few examples that I found with the help of SEO ladies and my editor, Jonathan Allen. I invite you to test it as I walk you through some of those examples, so you see exactly what it is about.
First query: "Opera Paris." Make sure you don't just validate the suggested terms, then click enter. Click on "pages" on the left hand navigation panel... What do you see? It yielded 70 results. Out of those, there are lots of links to third-party sites.
On the first SERP - because, let's face it, that's what this is now -, you can find links that take you directly to the websites of Tripadvisor.com, Homeaway.com and Nextoid.com

Facebook search opera paris.JPG

Then if you keep going through the pages, you'll come across other such sites:
A French online real-estate site, SeLoger.com...

Facebook search opera paris se loger.JPG

Music streaming site and online store Spotify...

Facebook search opera paris spotify.JPG

Or even RottenTomatoes.com:

Facebook search opera paris rottentomatoes.JPG

In all cases, the results are listed as "Pages" so unless you click on them, there is no way of telling that those are actually external links. Also, none of those entries have massive "Like" power: the most "liked" one is the Spotify content with 6 people in favor.
Second query: now let's try "Toronto restaurant" (why not?)

Facebook search toronto restaurant.JPG

Most of the results were from third-party sites: a food review site, the Canadian YellowPages.ca, and Yelp.

Facebook search toronto restaurant yelp.JPG

Finally, one last example to make my point. Third query: "japanese restaurant London."
Two entries only and both from external sites: Canadian YellowPages.ca again and London-eating.co.uk

Facebook search japanese restaurant london.JPG

Facebook Unphased
Reached by Christopher Heine from ClickZ, Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich, said the search results are determined by whether or not a user or his friends have tapped a Like button for a branded Web page on a site that's fully integrated Facebook's open graph. An example: if a user's friend tapped the Like button for Necco Japanese Café on the restaurant listings site, London-Eating, that user will see the café's listing if he searches for "Japanese restaurant in London" on Facebook. If the user hits the link, he's taken off Facebook.com and to the Necco Japanese Café's page on the London-Eating site.

"Part of the open graph protocol is that you can make any page on the Web function as a Facebook page," Lucich said. "So this is an extension of that...There's a lot of confusion out there. It's actually not anything new. It was part of our F8 announcement."

How Does It Really Work?
Oh come on now. That does not answer any of my questions:

  • How does Facebook crawl those sites, since there are both large tier ones as well as market specific like SeLoger.com?

  • How are they ranked since the "likeness" seems to have little effect?

Unlike what Lucich said and unlike what has been widely speculated upon in various reports, the "Like" is not necessarily the next "link."

So I talked to SEO Chicks Nichola Stott of theMediaFlow and Lisa Myers of Verve Search, who also ran tests. Stott seemed a particularly interesting choice since she has been posting on The Art (Or Science) Of Building Links last week.

Social Deal?
My first reaction was to revert to Google (yes, I confess) and look up the companies that had been "going social," knowing that TripAdvisor had done a hoopla about their Facebook integration. With my list in hand, I still had a hard time finding proper queries to conduct on Facebook in order to pull up results from those cited companies. Spotify was one of them and the Opera Paris test actually confirmed it to some (tiny) extent. So there went my theory, there was no sneaky win-win deal between both parties - Facebook and the linked sites - to serve specific results on the platform.

"OG" As In Open Graph
Stott and Myers suggested that the listed sites had an open API. But their thought was that Facebook would pick up the content they wanted from those sites. In fact, more precisely, after looking at the source codes of those pages, it was clear that the sites had all adopted the Open Graph protocol, thereby optimizing for Facebook. As Editor Jonathan Allen explained in a previous post, the following codes on the sites' sources are the sesame for those sites to appear on Facebook's SERP:
meta property="fb:admins" content="1354358478"
meta property="fb:admins" content="1210612417"
meta property="og:type" content="product"
meta property="og:type" content="company"
Or: og="http://opengraphprotocol.org/schema/

From SEO To SMO And "Tribal Searches"
So it seems we have now reached the point where Brian Solis' gimmick "SMO is the New SEO" is coming true since it is indeed possible to SEO - pardon me, SMO - your website in order to be on Facebook's SERP.

But looking again at all the queries, another really striking fact is that local results seem to have top priority...

Allen suggested that local results were a reflection of a behavior on Facebook, i.e. people are more likely to be sharing information on where they go/convene rather than a specific 'local' drive by the new search engine. That sure gives the full dimension to the phrase "tribal search".

Soon A Full-Power Search Engine?
So far, this has been quite discreet. In fact, even though Facebook says that it has always been available since the launch of the Open Graph, it seems more likely, however, that it actually "never reached this scale, which is why these results are surfacing now," Allen noted. True. But also the stealth approach could very well have been a determining fact: one has to go to "pages" first and then pay attention to the "source" as all of the entries are indexed as "pages" anyhow.

One thing for sure is that Bing, Facebook's exclusive search engine, might not be too happy about this development. And, for once, it may even agree with Google on the threat that Facebook poses to them both if when it decides to become a fully-fledged search engine. So far, news results are really poor (look up "oil spill" for example, or "volcano Finland" or "volcanic ashes") but local results are clearly more to Facebook's liking. Local results can easily be linked to location-based services... See what I mean? Just saying... Those guys are really ready to rule the world.