Opinion: Facebook Search Is Nifty, Not Necessary

My personal opinion, because of course I have one as a frequent Facebook user, is that Facebook search is a nifty toy but not a compelling feature by itself. I suspect people will try it out, find that the results aren’t as rich as Facebook promises and mostly won’t bother to use it again. Even more than traditional web search, Facebook search relies on network participation and data input.

What percentage of Facebook users have a large, active network with many friends that actually share similar interests? Actually, I’ve never seen statistics like that from Facebook. But unless it’s a majority of users, most users will find their results rather anemic. Few overlapping interests or few active friends and really there’s not a lot of personalized data to return in the search results.

Here’s an example. I’ve lived in the same northwestern suburb of Chicago for two and a half years. I’m Facebook friends with exactly four people who live here. One of them is my husband who pretty much frequents the same places I do. One hasn’t posted on Facebook in over three months. And two are frequent Facebook sharers, but mostly of adorable photos of their kids and lives. In addition I’ve Liked perhaps 10 local businesses and organizations. So if I ask Facebook Graph Search to recommend local businesses based on my friends’ likes, the results are going to be pretty meager. Sure, Facebook will pull in recommendations from other Facebook users near me, but at that point my results are just like any other generic resident of my town. Hmpf.

Now, when we’re talking about photo search I think it gets more interesting. I do see myself using Facebook’s photo search to find that one photo that had my best friend and me in it that at my wedding posted by our best man last summer. It’s a pain the tuchus to scan through his timeline or my photos to find that one photo, but if I can remember who was in the picture, who posted it and approximately when, the list of search results should be nicely targeted to the photo I’m looking for. IF someone bothered to tag me and my best friend. If not, well, all I have to go on is photos posted by the best man last summer. Still an easier task than scanning through them all, but you can see how effective Facebook search requires effective data input.

And that goes to the root of the issue. Google and Bing have spent years trying to find other signals to understand context, relevance and authority. They’ve come a long way but there’s still a long way to go, especially with photos and other media.

Really, it boils down to data input. If I post a photo on a blog with a numeric name like 123.jpg and don’t include any textual information about what that photo is of or who is in it, and there’s no tagging for date or location, that photo is essentially useless to the world of search based on the lack of data input. Garbage in, garbage (or nothing) out. Facebook has a leg up in that they at least have automatic data about who posted the photo and when, but unless it’s tagged with location, date of capture, people involved, and a useful description of what’s going on, that photo will be almost as useless to search as any generic data-less photo posted on the web.

And here’s the big issue: The average Facebook user doesn’t understand this and doesn’t want to. It takes time to input data and think of a reasonable comment. That’s why there are so many comments and descriptions out there like “What’s happening here?!?!” and “OMG.” Garbage in, garbage out.

Unless Facebook can train more users to thoughtfully input more data, Facebook search isn’t going to be as rich as their marketing videos indicate. When a Facebook employee looks at his search results, of course they’re rich — he knows a lot of people at Facebook who probably spend more time than the average bear on thoughtful data input when they share. Because they understand the value and quite possibly just a little nerdy like that. I also enjoy data input when I share, because I’m a little nerdy like that. “Oh, an optional field to fill in, well sure I’ll do that!”

Most people on Facebook and in real life are just not that into data input. And that’s the main reason why Facebook search is nifty rather than truly necessary.

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Originally posted on Web PieRat.