Can Facebook Contend in Local Search?
A term often invoked at the intersection of Facebook and local is “sleeping giant.” After launching several products that flirt with local search and discovery — Places, Graph Search, Nearby etc. — the giant remains mostly at rest.
Facebook Local, rebranded from Facebook Events, is the latest foray into location-based user engagement. Already covered astutely by Street Fight contributor Damian Rollison, the new product is a familiar story: potentially lethal but not quite there yet.
Facebook has been formidable in a few key areas of local — mostly among SMBs. It has penetrated further in SMB adoption than any other entity to date, with 65 million SMB pages, 5 million of which are paid. And Street Fight data indicates sustained growth.
That’s half the battle for Facebook: The other half is gaining equal favor as a local search and discovery engine among users. And by local engine, we mean a comprehensive set of local business categories, not just the fun ones like bars and dog parks.
Reaching that level comes down to branding and capability. For branding, will users see Facebook as the place to find a plumber? And can it brand itself as such? Beyond can, does it want to be the place that co-mingles your selfies and your leaky faucet issues?
As for capability, Facebook’s chops as a local engine are likewise promising but unproven. This applies differently to search and discovery. For the former, Graph Search assigns local business quality based on social signals (likes, visits etc.), especially that of your friends.
That can be powerful, given that Graph Search taps explicit signals and passively tracked behavior like foot traffic. But compare your social graph to Google’s non-walled index. Is the latter a bigger and better sample from which to tap the wisdom of the crowds?
Those who say ‘no’ point to quality over quantity. The thought is that graph search results informed by friend behavior are a better arbiter of quality than non-personal — though larger-sample — data from the broader web. For example: Yelp listings with thousands of reviews.
Practically speaking, sample size should trump social connection in local business vetting. Social graphs stem from factors like geography, school or work, but not necessarily palate. We don’t chose friends based on taste in Indian food or roofers. Should the opposite hold?
Admittedly, some local business categories require more personal trust (think: daycare). And despite the admittedly robotic assessment above, many users will choose a small sample of friends over a larger sample of strangers. And that real behavior is probably what matters.
But there are still holes in Facebook Local. Rollison points to thin or non-existent search results. And what about long-tail searches: What contractors work with colonial design? What gastropubs serve Pliny the Elder? We’re not seeing that level of granularity in Facebook Local yet.
For that, Facebook could push local versions of its Q&A and polls features. Facebook users already do this informally, and Messenger’s conversational commerce aspirations bring similar capability to SMBs. But will that find meaningful usage among time-starved SMBs?
Beyond search and messaging there’s also local discovery as mentioned above. This is where social graph data makes more sense as it can link social activity with discovery-oriented businesses like bars. This is what Nearby was meant to do, but didn’t have much of an impact.
And that’s the challenge. Disparate pieces of Facebook’s local puzzle have been in place at various intervals but never all at once. That could be due to shifting internal prioritization or other factors. But it will be a massive force in local when it cracks the code.
To get there, one key component may be to convince us that it’s the go-to place when the sink breaks. Until then, my Facebook friends are great for News-Feed selfies and bar recommendations, but not as effective when it comes to vetting the local plumbing scene.
Mike Boland is Street Fight’s analyst-in-residence and author of the Road Map column. He covers AR & VR as chief analyst of ARtillry, and SF President of the VR/AR Association. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social and emerging tech.