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.