External sites have begun to appear in Facebook’s search results, creating buzz last week that the social site has designs on invading Google’s territory. But Facebook has attempted to throw cold water on the chatter of an emerging search-marketing-based rivalry between the two Internet titans.
“There’s actually a lot of confusion out there,” Facebook spokesperson Malorie Lucich told ClickZ. “This isn’t anything new. It was actually part of our F8 [conference] announcement.” At the F8 conference on April 21, the Palo Alto, CA-based company announced its open graph, a platform that allows sites to share non-personally-identifiable information about users with Facebook.
Since that time, privacy advocates have harshly criticized Facebook for not clearly disclosing what these changes in information-sharing mean to consumers. However, developments late last week centered on the search marketing landscape more than privacy.
Here’s what caught attention: AllFacebook.com posted an article Thursday showing an external search result on Facebook – a TripAdvisor.com listing for a Marriott hotel in Maryland. (See images below.) And SearchEngineWatch.com writer Liva Judic unearthed the following external results on Friday: YellowPages.ca, RottenTomatoes.com, London-Eating.co.uk, and Nextoid.com.
Why are those sites showing up in the results for Facebook.com searches like “Japanese restaurant in London” when others are not? Those sites have implemented the Like button in a fashion Facebook calls “heavy integration.” Sites can also implement a lighter-integration version of the Like button, which, along with the light-integration-only Recommend button, are what Facebook calls social plug-ins. Only sites heavily integrating the Like button will appear in Facebook.com search results via the open graph, Lucich said. Clicking on one of those results takes the user off Facebook and directly to the third-party site.
The surfacing of the open-graph search results comes on the heels of Facebook debuting Web results from Bing, which appear below the fold after a Facebook.com search. Some industry watchers wonder how much Facebook can expand its 2.7 percent share (comScore, March 2010) of the search market – achieved only with internal Facebook.com searches so far – by pulling in results from the entire Web.
After all, sites that have heavily integrated the open graph protocol are feeding Facebook with user information about things that an individual has interest in when he or she taps a Like button. Hence, some pundits last week were raising the question, “Will there be enough relevancy in Facebook’s search to seriously battle Google for a bigger slice of the search pie?”
That question cannot be answered for at least several months. A simpler but also intriguing question is, “Why are the external search results appearing now, two months after the open graph went live?”
It appears that the search results are just now getting noticed due to the open graph protocol starting to hit critical mass. “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.”
The spokesperson later added, “The Web pages that you or your friends have ‘Liked’ will appear in search results. I know some people are reporting – they’re confused – that if you just slapped a Like button on your site then it’s going to go into all of Facebook search. And that’s just not the case. It’s only pages that you and your friends have ‘Liked.'”
Facebook’s Open Graph Search Already Has a Glitch
However, an internal test among editorial contributors for Incisive Media (ClickZ’s parent company) in New York and Paris showed that identical search results were coming up for everyone – even though none of the Facebook accounts involved were tied together by even a single Facebook friend. When asked how those results could occur, Lucich said, “We are testing a bunch of stuff right now, so I am guessing it’s a bug…That’s not how it’s supposed to function.”
So it appears that Facebook’s open graph has produced another potential kink – if not another privacy concern – to be ironed out. Though once the company does have its open graph search system down pat, it might make prophets out of pundits who have said that the social site could become a white-hot terrain for search marketing.
Kevin Lee, Didit co-founder and a ClickZ search marketing columnist, offered a more sober analysis. While contending that Facebook may have a big enough audience to challenge Google, he said there are two key unresolved issues: the relevancy of the results and whether Facebook can make money from search advertising.
Citing the theoretical example of targeting only writers who attended a specific university, he said: “Their ad platform doesn’t even allow for the specification of the intersection of two keywords…they both need to be there.”
He continued, “Facebook has a huge opportunity to monetize their users, but I’m not sure they can build a better search engine purely based on the social graph, especially if SEOs can aggressively manipulate the results.”
Follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.