Facebook Continues to Experiment in Local — But Its Focus Is Long-Term
Facebook, the putative sleeping giant of local search, has made a few attention-grabbing forays into the local arena over the last four years or so, including the launches of Graph Search and Nearby Places. I’ve been writing myself about the local potential of Facebook since 2012. Each time Facebook makes a new announcement, we prognosticators opine that the social network is about to finally capitalize on its huge user base and its goldmine of affinities linking engaged users to local businesses vying for consumer attention online.
Often the talk turns the monetization. The argument here is that Facebook has been chasing advertising revenue since its May 2012 IPO, and that local search opens up a potentially massive market of small business advertisers. Thus its local product launches are supposedly designed to win users over to local search as a core Facebook activity.
The trouble is, this hasn’t happened, at least not with products like Graph Search and Nearby Places. Graph Search, launched to much fanfare in January 2013, has now been folded rather unassumingly into the basic Facebook search platform. The big deal with Graph Search was that it was supposed to support structured queries that mirror what we do in real life when we ask friends whose opinions we trust to recommend a local plumber or a restaurant in an unfamiliar town. One can only assume that Facebook didn’t find much of a user base for the idea. Support for structured searches still exists, but you don’t hear much about it these days. And notably, local business results on the Places tab do not surface any sidebar advertising.
Nearby Places, the local search feature on the Facebook mobile app, seems hidden in a corner as well; on iOS it’s the tenth and final item on the feature list under the More link. Findings like that of the Neustar/Localeze/15 Miles local search study from a couple of years back suggest that people use Facebook for mobile local searches to a surprising degree, but I’ve often wondered exactly what kinds of local searches these are; in my own experience, it’s so much more convenient to use Google or Apple Maps if you need the nearest Starbucks that I can’t imagine anyone turning to Facebook for that reason. I suspect that Facebook’s high mobile local numbers come more from name-in-mind searches where users are looking to connect to specific local businesses, for instance in order to check in during a store visit.
Check-ins are obviously significant from a local engagement perspective, but they don’t represent anything close to the full potential of Facebook as a local portal. I’m certainly curious to see if that potential might be realized by the launch of the company’s new Services portal last month, though I’m also skeptical. One issue with launches like Graph Search, Nearby, and now Services is that Facebook seems content to let them vie for themselves out in the boondocks rather than granting them the inevitable usage lift of dedicated space in the Newsfeed. Consider Google Places as a counterexample. Google has carefully but progressively ceded a big portion of the search page to its local property, in what might be viewed as a cleverly calibrated move to grow the user base for local and thus win an increasing share of ad dollars for locally targeted keywords. By contrast, as far as I can tell there’s no way to even find the new Facebook Services page from the Newsfeed or your user profile, at least not yet. I got to it the way a lot of us probably did, by reading about the feature in a blog post and then typing facebook.com/services into the browser. Not exactly an invitation to the masses. Also important to note: if Facebook’s goal in local is monetization through advertising, why is Services not only orphaned from the Newsfeed but, from what I can tell, entirely ad free?
Some may note that I haven’t mentioned one other local experiment on Facebook’s part, the Places Directory launched in November 2014. Structured in the form of a city guide that helps you discover great places in your area, the Places Directory still exists but, like Services, you can’t get to it easily from the Newsfeed. In fact, if you type a local query like “hotels birmingham al” in standard Facebook search, then click the Places tab, you’ll get local results, but in a different, more Newsfeed-like interface than the same search at facebook.com/places. The listings themselves are different as well, as though Facebook is employing totally unrelated ranking algorithms. Do the same search at facebook.com/services and you’ll see a third interface with listings ranked according to yet another method. It’s fair to say that the search experience across Facebook’s local portals is intentionally fragmented.
Or rather, that the company isn’t trying to build a unified local search portal at all. Instead, they’re launching trial balloons, turning developers loose to experiment with the company’s local data in order to surface features and nuances that might eventually be useful as subtle additions to the Newsfeed. That’s what they’ve done with Graph Search, so if the same thing happens with Services and the Places Directory, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Shortly after it launched Newsfeed in 2006, Facebook made the feature into the centerpiece of its user experience, adding features but jealously guarding the Newsfeed’s primary role as destination and site of user engagement. The orphaned status of its local portals testifies to that unwavering focus. All of which leads to the conclusion that Facebook recognizes the value of local but sees that value in a broader context and in terms of a long game rather than a land grab.