Columnist Wesley Young looks at recent improvements Facebook has made — and functionality being tested — that may position the social media giant to compete with Google in the area of local search.
The race to steal market share from Google in local search has been futile. Google dominates search with over 63 percent market share, and in mobile, where the growth is, Google almost holds a monopoly at 95 percent. The dark horse in the race is Facebook — the one who can match Google’s Goliath size, audience and resources.
Yet it has never seriously challenged Google in search, and both companies have seemed somewhat satisfied to retreat to their respective corners of strength — Facebook deferring in the area of search, and Google shelving its Google+ social network.
With its huge base of users and volume of personal data on them, Facebook has great potential for helping users in their search for local products/services and helping businesses get found. All the components are there: millions of business pages, location data, behavior data, demographic information, social networks and engagement.
Yet despite the potential, Facebook hadn’t in recent years been able to effectively compete with the likes of Google in local search. Facebook is a great place to engage with existing customers and reach targeted audiences with sponsored posts in news feeds. However, customers still largely left the platform to find local businesses and information.
The Local Search Association (disclosure: my employer) recently released a report about how consumers in 12 cities of varying populations look for local business information. Search engines still dominate local search at 80 percent usage, compared to 48 percent for social networks.
But Facebook seems to be steadily improving its search function, preferring to move at a deliberate pace in developing its own proprietary technology instead of contracting with others (as it did previously with Bing).
About 18 months ago, I looked at Facebook’s search capability and concluded that it lacked complete and accurate data, returned poor search results and generally offered a bad user experience. It just didn’t work.
Since then, Facebook has made huge strides in improving that experience and is further beta testing some functions that incorporate social media data into local search to return results in a way even Google can’t match. And that might make Facebook search a threat to Google.
Below are seven ways Facebook is changing the way search works on its platform that may alter the local search landscape.
1. Facebook is using location much more effectively
Location is at the heart of local search, as reflected by Google’s emphasis on proximity and physical address in ranking local search results. Facebook now prominently highlights maps and directions at the top of local business pages on both the Home page and the About page.
Many searches from the top search box also automatically return results based on the user’s location – truly local search results. In earlier test searches, when location was not specified in a general search for “Italian restaurants,” I received results from India and New York. Today, only restaurant listings within two miles of me are listed, and the results include an address and map location. Clicking through to see all results opens the Places tab and provides more results all within three miles.
Below is a comparison of screen shots from November 2015 and June 2017 of results for Italian restaurants in Frisco. This illustrates the difference location information makes to a listing.
2. Places is given priority
Not only is location being used more effectively, but places are given much higher priority. Previously, the functionality of the Places tab was sorely lacking, indicating the low priority Facebook had assigned it. In my earlier test, a search for “Lawyers in Frisco” returned only one result: Tupy’s. If Tupy was once a lawyer, he answered a greater calling: He’s been serving tasty Mexican food in the Dallas area for over 60 years.
Facebook Places today is not only highly functional, it is the first information provided when relevant (i.e., when a search is made that implies a place or local business). For example, a search for “Texas Beaches” or “Plumbing services” returned Places results at the top, followed by pages of local businesses. And Facebook recognizes when location is not relevant — a search for “Wonder Woman movie” returned videos, news and a Wikipedia page.
3. Search results are much more robust and complete
The single non-relevant result in the search for lawyers described above was a common problem with many searches 18 months ago. That search for lawyers in Frisco today? It now returns 48 results of attorneys and law firms within 4.5 miles.
The results are not only much deeper, but they provide more valuable information. The lawyer listings show profile pictures, address, distance from me, whether it is still open, and star rating. The listings even describe what type of law the firm or attorney practices, such as family law, criminal law or estate planning.
4. Facebook improved indexing of its information
Another problem that Facebook had with search was poor indexing of information. I’d visited a pizza vendor in Washington, D.C. called Jumbo Slice Pizza. It’s not a small unknown joint — it’s been profiled by the Travel Channel and is the source of frequent posts by Facebook users showing off slices of pizza that are three times the size of the talking head about to consume it. Yet a search for “Jumbo Slice Pizza DC” didn’t pull up the place, or even my post from when I’d checked in at the restaurant.
Today, Facebook has fixed that indexing problem. It also helped improve its search function by adding suggested search terms that show up when a user is typing in the search box. These suggested search terms frequently pull up business categories that Facebook offers its business users to identify what kind of business they are. Thus, Facebook helps the searcher use search terms that will provide better results as indexed on the platform.
5. Facebook is beta testing new features, including integrating friend posts and local search
Facebook needs to make its search unique, not a lesser version of Google search. It’s doing that by incorporating its social media data with search results. First identified by TechCrunch, Facebook is testing with some users including mini profile pics below place listings of friends who have checked in or posted about the place or business.
This extra bit of information could make a world of difference for Facebook search. Word of mouth has long been considered the best lead generator for quality leads and conversion. It’s like reviews on steroids.
Consumers trust their friends, and that relationship provides important context for the review. They know whether this friend is a bargain hunter or enjoys the finer things; whether the friend has similar or different taste; whether he or she is analytical or jumps head-first into decisions. Knowing a friend you trust chose the business means that oftentimes, words aren’t even necessary. With the number of users and volume of information that Facebook has, this could be a game-changer in local search.
Facebook also is integrating interactive maps with pins for business locations. Previous map results provided only a static map. While this isn’t an innovative development, given the importance of location to local search, this is a necessary addition to Facebook’s search function. The map functions much like Google or Apple Map local searches, providing business listings with pin locations on the map that can be pinched in or zoomed out.
6. Facebook is using crowdsourcing to build out its database
Facebook has one of the largest crowds on the planet, so leveraging that manpower for free seems like a pretty good idea. Google does it via its “local guides,” so it’s a somewhat proven idea.
Some users are being asked to provide input into details about places that they’ve checked into via Facebook Editor. When the user checks in or tags a place, a series of yes-or-no questions are asked, such as “Does this place have parking?” or “Is this the right location on the map?” or “Is this the same place as [another name]?”
Based on the information that I’ve been asked to verify, it appears that Facebook does have a fair amount of inaccurate information — leftovers from allowing users to create new place listings themselves. What appears to be a selective “trusted” editor function is an attempt to rectify that, but it also is making some users unhappy. Facebook didn’t ask users to be editors and just automatically asks those questions once a new post is created. A Google search for Facebook editor suggests searches for “delete Facebook editor,” “remove Facebook editor” and many other similar search terms — so it’s unclear how long Facebook will essentially force its users to help clean up its database.
Nevertheless, more accurate and comprehensive information would help further improve Facebook’s search function.
7. Facebook introduced City Guides
One subject users love to post about is travel. In fact, it’s been suggested that social media is helping boost travel, food and entertainment spending as users seek out experiences that they can share with friends and that reflect positively on themselves.
Facebook created City Guides that provides information on popular places such as restaurants and sights for frequently visited cities. Its distinguishing feature is a list of friends that have been to the city, and tapping on each friend brings up a list of places they’ve visited. Next, the City Guide lists “local favorites.” USA Today reports 56 percent of vacationing Americans prefer local dining experiences, so users are likely to find this information very helpful. The guides have a TripAdvisor feel that is more personalized or targeted and adds a rich surf-and-discover function to Facebook’s local search experience.
How to make sure you’re found on Facebook search
All of the above improvements to Facebook’s search function give users more reason to stay on Facebook, spend more time on the platform and consume more content. Facebook is finally making a realistic foray into local search and has the potential to significantly grow usage, which in turn can help small businesses that already love the engagement it provides to existing customers.
Thus, it makes sense for a local business to review its business page “About” section and the way its information shows up in search results to make sure it captures the increasing search traffic Facebook hopes to deliver. Here are a few tips to get started:
Review your Facebook business profile and make sure it is complete. This is similar to the Google My Business (GMB) profile that includes contact information, details about your business and interactive functions you can adopt.
Verify that location information is accurate and returns a physical map location that shows up at the top of your business profile when your page is displayed. While the map pin should be automatically generated when you provide an address, I have seen some businesses that do not display the location or map even when an address was provided.
Add business categories that further describe your business. Although you are only asked for one business category when you create your Facebook page, you can return and edit the “About” section to add two more business categories that may help improve visibility, depending on the search terms used.
Activate buttons that Facebook offers, such as call-to-click and appointment schedulers that help convert traffic to your page.
Don’t leave blanks in any section that might trigger Facebook to crowdsource answers. Your answers will be the most reliable answers, even if you answer, “No,” or you indicate the question doesn’t apply to your business.
In closing, Facebook is making significant strides in local search, particularly in melding social media data with local search results. This may be enough to start turning the tide toward making it a major local search player as users discover and enjoy the search experience. Keep an eye out for even more developments, as Facebook’s unique data set will continue to allow it to provide more targeted and customized results. Will we see Facebook AdWords or Facebook SEO any time soon? I wouldn’t bet against it.