With its Jan. 15 announcement of Facebook Graph Search, has the social network changed the art and science of organic search engine optimization (SEO)? Or has nothing changed at all for businesses that are already practicing SEO, social media and content marketing?
To find out, we asked three experts to walk us through Facebook Graph Search and explain what it means for businesses today and in the near future.
1: What Is Facebook Graph Search?
Facebook Graph Search focuses on people, photos, places and interests. Graph Search replaces Facebook's more limited search tool and lets users perform specific searches that connect the dots between people in their network.
In Pictures: Facebook's New Graph Search
For example, you could search "music my friends who live in San Francisco, California listen to." The result will be a graphical list of musician and band Facebook fan pages your San Fran friends "liked" (by clicking Facebook's Like button). You'll also see which of your friends liked each artist, and you can click the "Like" button within the search results, too. Microsoft's search engine Bing remains integrated into Facebook search to help users find content outside Facebook. Meanwhile, when you're signed into Facebook using Bing, the search engine recently includes a sidebar of keyword search results from content in your Facebook network.
2: Is Facebook Graph Search Available to Everyone Now?
No. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that Graph Search is in "very early beta" and will roll out gradually to U.S. English users. It will eventually become available to Facebook mobile users and those in other languages.
"Several Facebook product people are on record saying they still have work to do to figure out how to scale the computationally intensive searches across millions of concurrent users," says Ben Straley, vice president of social technologies for Rio SEO and Covario. "Nontrivial engineering challenges stand in the way of mass availability."
In a statement, Facebook notes that users can search for a subset of content on Facebook. "Posts and Open Graph actions (for example, song listens) are not yet available," the company says. "We'll be working on these things over the coming months."
To start using Facebook Graph Search as soon as possible, get on the waiting list.
3. How Is a Google Search Different From a Facebook Graph Search?
Google (and other search engines) index the entire public Web so you can quickly find the latest news articles, videos or other online content related to a specific keyword or phrase.
In contrast, Facebook Graph Search combines phrases—"people who like tennis and live nearby," for example, or "languages my friends speak." The Graph Search results are the people, places, photos or other content accessible to you within your Facebook network.
4: What About Facebook Graph Search and Privacy?
Facebook says its built Graph Search with privacy in mind from the start, adding that the company "respects the privacy and audience of each piece of content on Facebook. It makes finding new things much easier, but you can only see what you could already view elsewhere on Facebook."
Those comforting words aside, Facebook Graph Search has some security experts and privacy advocates concerned. "Facebook claims to have built Graph Search with privacy in mind, but Facebook has a mixed track record on this front and is in the habit of pushing privacy to the limits of what is acceptable," Eden Zoller, principal analyst at technology consultancy Ovum, tells CIO.com inHow Your Facebook Privacy Settings Impact Graph Search. Others suggest that Facebook Graph Search will be great for phishing attacks.
Meanwhile, the Web is already buzzing with the potentially embarrassing and disturbing connections Facebook Graph Search can create. There's even a Tumblr blog devoted to the topic, Actual Facebook Graph Searches, with screenshots of search results for such terms as "current employers of people who like racism."
5. How Will Facebook Graph Search Result Rankings Differ From Google?
There is some similarity in how search results are ranked on Google and Facebook. Google sees legitimate links from other Web pages (and social networks) to a particular piece of Web content as votes of confidence in that content. As a result, a blog post, Web page, YouTube video or other content that receives legitimate links from other sites will rank higher in Google search results than other relevant content without external links.
In other words, Google tends to reward Web content that has compelled people across the Internet to endorse or share it online with links. Similarly, Graph Search can surface Facebook content that has compelled people in your network to like it, share it, check in and/or comment. The more interaction your Facebook posts get, the more likely those posts will be found in a Facebook Graph Search.
6. Are Consumers Likely to Use Facebook Graph Search?
That's a "big if" and the most important question," Straley says.
"Where I think this is possible is on mobile devices. Industry research suggests that many consumers turn to specific mobile apps to conduct vertical searches, like using Yelp to find restaurants, the Weather Channel app for local weather, and Google Maps for directions," he says. "It is in the app environment on mobile devices where I think Graph Search has the greatest potential to reach critical mass and experience rapid adoption.
That said, Staley adds that it's "doubtful" Facebook Graph Search will be available for mobile devices in 2013.
7. Which Types of Businesses Will Benefit Most From Facebook Graph Search?
It's still early, says Jon Loomer, a Facebook marketing coach and consultant, but his immediate reaction is that Graph Search will be best for local business-to-consumers (B2C) companies.
"These are the companies that often complain about not seeing direct revenues from Facebook, but the improvement of social search could change that," Loomey says. "If people use Graph Search to find restaurants, electronics stores or contractors, they'll be running these searches with purchase intent. As a result, I see this changing the value of an active Facebook presence for local businesses. This also creates big opportunities for advertising within these results."
Straley agrees that Facebook Graph Search has potential for businesses with a local presence, saying, "It will be a great way for people to discover local businesses their friends like and use." One reason is because mobile users tend to search frequently for local businesses on their devices when they're out and about.
"Mobile users tend to share and respond more to content they find," he says. "The combination of local, social and mobile is exploding right now, and Facebook Graph Search could present a gigantic opportunity for brands that tap into this. Graph Search, in fact, could be the killer app for Facebook."
Brands enjoying a high level of engagement from their content will benefit, as well, Loomer adds, especially with the potential to gain more fans of a business' Facebook page.
8. Will B2B Companies Benefit From Facebook Graph Search?
The potential benefits of Facebook Graph Search aren't limited to B2C companies, says Krista LaRiviere, co-founder and CEO of gShift Labs, which offers SEO software for agencies and marketers. It may also benefit B2B companies, even if they've traditionally seen Facebook as a place only for consumer marketing.
"If you're a B2B company, your potential buyer probably isn't on Facebook during the day," LaRiviere says. "But when they go home at night, they are on Facebook, and they have the opportunity then to interact with your brand. The lines are really gray between work and home life these days, but one thing is clear: Your B2B prospects are on Facebook."
9: Will Facebook Graph Search Have SEO Best Practices That Differ From Organic Google Search?
"I don't know that I would consider these new SEO practices, or simply magnifying the best practices that Facebook Page administrators should have been practicing from the start," Loomer says. "They should have been creating valuable and relevant content, not fluff, that inspires comments, likes and shares. They should have been advertising to extend their reach and grow their audience. If they've been doing these things, they'll benefit the most from Graph Search."
Loomer further anticipates that brands small and large will reach out "to influential people to get them to like their Facebook pages, in an effort to improve their search results on Facebook.
Straley adds that the most important factor for organic SEO is "the number and quality of links pointing to your content. And one of the best ways of getting those links is through social media sharing. Not only will social sharing be great for Facebook Graph Search results, it is also fantastic for organic SEO. While the disciplines of SEO and social are still fairly different, with different ways to measure and track performance, ultimately both benefit from the same core behaviors—linking to and sharing content."
LaRiviere agrees: "When you look at the underlying principal of organic search, relevancy is at the core. Social media sharing helps create that relevance, which in turn impacts organic search results."
10: What Should Digital Marketers and Publishers Do About Facebook Graph Search Now?
"A simple rule of thumb is that, the more content that gets shared, liked or commented on through Facebook, the greater the chances are of users discovering that content through Graph Search," Straley says.
To make that happen, Straley suggests the following:
- Create "share-worthy" Facebook content that's "useful, interesting or amazing."
- Add Facebook Share and Like buttons to your Web content wherever possible.
- Use rich media in Facebook posts. "Videos are probably most likely to be shared," Straley says, "followed by images, followed by text." (Author's note: See my blog post, When to Post on Facebook, for infographics that show the best time to share on Facebook by industry and other criteria.)
- Reward those who share your content with exclusive content, promotions or other incentives.
- Use the same keywords on Facebook that you're already using for organic SEO—provided those keywords are driving targeted traffic to your content. "The keywords people search for on Google are likely to be similar to or the same keywords they use on Facebook," Straley explains. "The bottom line is to know what consumers are talking about and looking for, and optimize all your content for that."
Conclusion: Never Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
Though Google has 65 percent of the search engine market share at any given time, it's never a wise decision to rely entirely upon Google—or any other single source—to send targeted traffic to your content, SEO experts say. Facebook Graph Search presents marketers with an opportunity to "think outside the Google search box" and not "put all their eggs in one basket," LaRiviere says.
Ultimately, businesses that are already "doing the right thing" in terms of SEO, social media and content marketing will be in a good position as Facebook Graph Search rolls out.
"If you're already producing fresh, relevant, search-engine-optimized content, distributing it through your blog and promoting it on social networks, and giving your audience the ability to easily share that content on social media, then you're already doing what you need to do for Facebook Graph Search," LaRiviere says. "And if you're not doing any of that, now's the time to start."
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.