Primer: Why Facebook Is the Future King of Search

on Friday, May. 18th

There is one major player left in the search game now and it’s not Microsoft or Google; it’s Facebook, which just raised $16 billion in its IPO.

First, a little history. Yahoo! used to have skin in the game, but it decided Microsoft should power its search engine, instead. While you would think losing a player would have made things boring in the search space, it’s actually anything but. The spectre of Facebook encroaching on their turf had every major player so scared that Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft all tried to buy the social networking giant at one time or another. When they realized that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t going to capitulate, they moved on to Plan B and scrambled to come up with a better answer to the question that keeps Larry and Sergei up at night: how do we make search more relevant?

In the beginning, this was Yahoo!’s game to lose. Yahoo! acquired Delicious in 2005 in the hopes that Yahoo! could leverage the wisdom of the crowd to tailor their search results. Yahoo! had the capability to define the social search space, but it dropped the ball. Not taking advantage of that acquisition was a significant lost opportunity. Then, in January of this year, Google launched “Search, Plus Your World”. To say it was badly received would be an understatement. Combine the privacy concerns with the terrible search results Google was suddenly putting out, and people switching search providers was suddenly a real concern for Google. Which brings us to this “future of search” moment.

According to Hitwise, Bing now powers 30.01% of U.S. searches. I’m one of the people who switched. I use Bing on all of my mobile devices now because I found the quality of its mobile search results not only more concise but significantly better than Google’s. I’ve become fatigued with seeing 100,000,000 potential search results returned knowing that after the first page, those results are useless. I especially despise it in a mobile environment. I just want the right answer and I want it now. Thus, I switched to Bing. And I haven’t looked back. Clearly I’m not the only one who decided to make the switch.

These stats are not only amazing, but also very timely for Microsoft. Microsoft just announced its plans for social search and after using it, I’m intrigued enough to switch to Bing as my desktop search provider. The best description of it is a combination between Yahoo! Answers and your regular search engine. Immediately upon using it, you’ll see a grey sidebar that shows Facebook friends that may have some input on what you’re searching for. It even goes one step further and allows you to post directly to Facebook, asking those friends specifically about the topic of your search. This makes search social (and potentially viral) and integrates it in a non-intrusive way. I get advice from people I value about the topics I care about. By all indications, Microsft has a winner in this product. But a winner for whom?

Answer: Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft (itself an investor in Facebook) certainly gets a lot of credit for putting together an awesome product in Bing. However, the big winner here is definitely Facebook. What’s funny is that this horse race started out as a way to stop Facebook from entering the search arena and it’s Facebook who will end up being the biggest winner in Microsoft’s search successes. Why? Because with this move Facebook becomes even more indispensable to our online lives.

I already can’t read the news, interact with my friends, watch videos online, or do basically anything online with running into Facebook Connect. Now Facebook is integrated directly into my Internet searches in a way that actually makes sense. If this integration takes off, the amount of data Facebook will collect about each of us and our search patterns is astounding. Add to that the fact that we’ll probably only be sharing the searches that truly matter to us and Facebook gets some of the most valuable data out there. Want proof of that? Just look at how much money Google makes off of that same data with AdWords. Facebook is making a bold move into search and challenging Google directly through its investor Microsoft. Meanwhile everyone is looking the other way and applauding Microsoft for being the comeback kid. Brilliant.

So let’s tally this all up. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft all tried (and failed) to acquire Facebook. Yahoo! ended up not only dropping the social search ball, but being forced to get out of the game altogether. Google screwed the pooch and took five steps backwards in search relevancy due to a horrible Google+ integration. And now Microsoft hands the keys to the search kingdom to Facebook; the very same player all of them were trying to defend against in the first place.

I, for one, am both intrigued and scared; no one company should be as indispensable as Facebook is now. I am going on record as saying Facebook is the Future King of Search.

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