Can Facebook change the search paradigm?

In the world of search engine optimization, 2012 has been full of talk about the blurring line between search and social. With Big Brother Google unleashing Panda and Penguin to keep black hats in check, the industry has been forced to take a more holistic approach to SEO. Google’s acolytes are now paying attention to other players in the space, and Facebook is suddenly alone in the spotlight.
A Facebook social search engine, which is becoming more of a reality every day, would completely change the way we approach search. As an SEO specialist at The Search Agency, I’ve been closely monitoring this paradigm shift away from indexing billions of pages.
Search and social are merging, and it is clear that Google and Facebook both hope to claim this new territory. Google is actively attempting to take more of the social market with Google+, most recently adding Google+ Local Pages, which forces businesses to create a Google+ business page in order to have control of the Google reviews landing page. It remains to be seen if Google will be able to eat into the social space and win over businesses that have concentrated their social efforts on Facebook.
For its part, Facebook has been very quiet about its foray into search. Rightfully so, because users may not be receptive to the idea of a Facebook search engine. But Facebook isn’t trying to replicate Google’s search engine indexing. Since the company can’t compete with the sheer volume of Google’s more than 8.6 billion indexed pages, it needs to change the paradigm and use its existing social network to approach search with a leaner, smarter eye. If Facebook can develop a social search product that curates good results based on users’ profiles and social graphs, it might be able to compete in the search business.
The following are some of Facebook’s potential advantages in building search functionality.

1. Facebook crawls may be more efficient than Google

Facebook doesn’t actually need to crawl the Web like Google. Instead, it can crawl just the pages that are liked or linked to. Facebook doesn’t have to scan lines and lines of code either. It can crawl just enough to create a snippet and thumbnail, or skip directly to the Open Graph tags.

2. The breadth of Facebook user profiles

Facebook could implement a weighted algorithm that returns curated search results based on a user’s interests, likes, event attendance, in-app activities and social graph interactions. This is all self-identified data given to Facebook willingly by users and is perhaps the most accurate and in-depth user data available.
Meanwhile, Google has to guess almost everything about a user based on a comparatively meager amount of information, including IP location, previous searches, and maybe a Google+ profile. Google is very good at figuring out user data and sometimes user intent, but not always. However, in Googlelandia all searches are weighted nearly equally, because they mostly rely on the actual search term.

3. The Facebook “like”

As Facebook looks to curate search results, a Facebook like can be treated as a vote for a page. By prioritizing all the liked pages connected to a user’s social graph, page load time can be minimized and the most popular pages can be cached to load quicker through selecting which pages are most likely to be clicked. This is very similar to the Google +1 feature, but a Facebook like is a more trustworthy vote and potentially drives a higher click-through rate, because your Google contacts are more removed than your Facebook friends.

4. In-app activities and “Action Links” within the Open Graph

When a Facebook user listens to a song on Spotify or reads an article on the Washington Post’s social reader, this is a strong signal of intent that can affect how Facebook curates its search results. Publishing in-app actions to a user’s friends becomes a valuable vote for that app, song, article, product page and brand timeline. All in-app activity collects valuable user data that can help curate search results.
On Facebook, users generally identify the type of content they share, and this will be even more prominent with the newly introduced Action Links which allows businesses to add additional “action verbs” into the Open Graph structure. The objective is to allow businesses to personalize company pages and product pages. It can drive engagement with this customization and allow for purchases directly from Facebook, such as with an “add to bag” Action Link.
We’re deep in the age of the social Web, and Facebook has been extremely careful to avoid questions about developing a search product and it has tried to drop the word “engine” to avoid any direct competition with Google. Facebook is not trying to replicate search engine indexing, and it has no desire to compete directly with Google’s search engine — only Bing has stepped up to that challenge, and a partnership already exists between Bing and Facebook to power a social complement to Bing’s search results. This partnership further proves that Facebook has no interest in developing an actual search engine, but rather wants to leverage its existing resources and social network to develop a new social search paradigm. It still remains to be seen who will dominate the intersection of social and search. But Facebook is extremely well positioned to edge out Google — if they can figure out how to move users away from the existing indexed search paradigm.
Jessica Lee is a SEO specialist with The Search Agency, the largest independent U.S. search marketing agency with expertise in search, display and social media. 
Image courtesy of Flickr user FindYourSearch.