Last Friday, a launch occurred that, depending on your perspective, is either a momentous sea change in the world of local or else a rather disappointing splash through a few familiar puddles. I’m talking about Facebook’s rebranding of its Events app as Facebook Local, or Local from Facebook (the App Store calls it both). Could this be Facebook’s long-awaited foray into serious competition with the Googles and Yelps of the world for market share in local search?
As I and many others have mused more than once in the past, Facebook stands in a particularly strong position to bring a unique offering to local search, given its vast network of mapped affinities between people and things. Want the best recommendation for a local store or service provider? Ask those you trust, or better yet, let the algorithm tell you. Likes, check-ins, shares, reviews, posts, and many other signs of consumer affinity can help Facebook determine which local businesses should be surfaced in personalized keyword and discovery searches. Much more than Google or Yelp, Facebook is a community, or rather a set of overlapping communities, and location is a latent factor in most of them. The platform is, or should be, a playground for building amazing local products.
But for some reason, Facebook has been content to let local sit on its back burner. Seeing how the company has split off tools like Messenger into separate apps, let alone leaving acquisitions like Instagram and WhatsApp to pursue their own followings as independent entities, this strategy is likely based on the notion that the news feed, where social connection predominates, must remain central to the Facebook user experience.
Thus the original spinoff of the Events app in October 2016, an experiment that never took off, only gaining about 100,000 users during its lifetime. The new Local relaunch adds a layer of local places to what is still, in the main, an app designed to help you find events in your area. Facebook has broadened the meaning of “event” slightly, to include the idea of meeting up with your friends at cafes, restaurants, nightspots and the like, but there’s no pretense of being a local search tool in a general sense. In place of typical local classifications like plumbers and attorneys, the app offers event-type categories like art, theater, games, and causes. Trying to use Facebook Local like a directory produces disappointing results – for instance, I clicked Wellness thinking it might show me medical offices, only to be told there were no matching events for that category.
All of this is beside the point if Facebook can train a user base to think of local in the terms it has defined. It’s easy to see the event-based strategy as another instance of Facebook’s attempt to shift its demographic back toward millennials, not unlike its recent moves to replicate Snapchat features in Messenger and Instagram. Like the Snap Map, Facebook Local melds friendship, location, and social activity.
It’s just that there’s so much more Facebook could be doing. There are millions of Facebook Pages for businesses just waiting to be brought into focus with a local offering that covers the full range of consumer needs. Facebook users review local businesses and post, share, and comment on business page content. The reputation of a local business is arguably reflected more accurately on Facebook than anywhere else.
We’ve been treading this ground for a few years now. Past releases like Graph Search and Facebook Nearby were also hailed as signs that Facebook was finally launching a local product, yet they failed to gain traction. And despite these updates, the user experience of searching for businesses by type remains very inconsistent both on desktop and mobile. In fact, it could well be that underlying data issues are preventing Facebook from purposing its Page content to act like a local directory.
Meanwhile, another Facebook local product has proved to be a sleeping giant. Facebook Marketplace, which has been around in one form or another for several years, has recently and surprisingly mutated into a Craigslist killer, with search volume tripling since the beginning of 2017. Along with apps like LetGo, Facebook has clearly caught the wave of social selling. Marketplace offers engaging image-based browsing of local products for sale and several helpful tools for buyers and sellers.
In fact, Marketplace takes advantage of the same latent local layer in the Facebook platform that the new Local app frustratingly excludes. Given the level of engagement Marketplace is seeing with casual buyers and sellers, businesses may not be far behind. Perhaps Marketplace will become the social giant’s real local play after all.