Is Facebook missing an opportunity in mobile search?
By Chantal Tode
January 17, 2013
Facebook Graph Search
Mobile search is ripe for innovation and Facebook could be the one to do it, given its large user base. However, by not making its new Graph Search service available on mobile at launch, this leaves the door open for someone else to take the lead as an agent for change.
Google has approximately a 95 percent share of searches on mobile in part because it is the default search option on most devices and there simply are not many other options out there. Others are trying to innovate in mobile search such as Microsoft Bing and Kickvox but they lack the enormous customer base that Facebook has.
“With the user experience being even more important on mobile devices it is not surprising that Facebook is making sure they have all their bases covered before releasing on mobile,” said Roger Barnette, president of IgnitionOne, New York.
“Of course every day without the new Graph Search on mobile is a missed opportunity, but until advertising is integrated into the experience as well it is not really material to their financial performance or that of advertisers,” he said.
“Facebook wants to deliver a perfect experience – too bad they could not do that on mobile out of the gate but it is the right decision to wait if they weren't ready.”
The mobile problem
Search on mobile faces several challenges.
Many would agree that the experience is not yet great since Web search is still primarily driven by desktop use.
One of the challenges in mobile search is the way that users conduct a search from a smartphone, especially as voice search grows. The searches are worded differently, which means the algorithms have to keep up, an area where Google leads.
There are also monetization issues since paid search ads in mobile generate significantly lower revenues compared to what they bring in on desktop. This is one of the reasons why Google has seen CPCs go down as mobile use has grown.
Some are also already trying to improve search on mobile. However, their potential impact is likely to be minimal if no other reason than scale.
“I think Microsoft is doing a lot of great work with Bing for Mobile Web but their challenge is distribution and differentiation,” said Marc Poirier, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Acquisio, Brossard, Canada . “I don't expect them to pose a serious threat to Google on the short term.”
Taking on Google
However, Facebook could potentially make a big impact on mobile search when it extends Graph Search to smartphones.
The new Graph Search service announced by Facebook this week will let users search for people, photos, places and interests based on content that has already been shared with them. While it is currently only available in beta on desktop, Facebook said it is looking to bring it to mobile.
“Graph search on mobile means you can easily find local restaurants or businesses that are recommended by your Facebook friends,” Mr. Poirier said.
“People are using Google and Google maps to search locally, they also use Open Table and Yelp for restaurants - changing those habits will be a huge challenge, but Facebook being such a popular mobile app, it's not hard to imagine they could gain traction against Google on mobile search,” he said.
One strategy that Facebook could take in mobile search would be to launch a mobile application that leverages Graph Search to find local businesses.
Apps are in fact a big focus for Facebook in mobile following its retreat from HTML 5 and the mobile Web, with the company having said the user experience on the mobile Web is not where it is needs to be.
“Of course there is a missed opportunity for Facebook in local search, to be honest I don't think they need to release it immediately, but they do need to release it in a thoughtful way - they cannot damage the user experience they provide today and risk alienating users who are generating revenue, all the while they need to make search obvious on mobile devices,” Mr. Poirier said.
“Facebook could solve this problem with a separate app from the current Facebook app, one that would be designed specifically for Graph Search and specifically enhanced to find local businesses,” he said.
Facebook is dealing with many of the same issues that Google is in terms of figuring out how to monetize mobile as use increasingly moves from desktop to smartphones and tablets.
While the social network’s initial efforts into mobile advertising via Sponsored Stories in the mobile newsfeed are finding early success, Facebook will need to have a presence in mobile search if it is to maintain its relevancy going forward.
“Facebook has made it clear the importance of mobile to their business,” Mr. Barnette said. “I don’t expect the lag to be very long until Graph Search is released on mobile devices.
“But of course, I expect every digital business to be innovating in the mobile space,” he said. “If you are ignoring mobile it is only a matter of time before you are irrelevant.”
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