Facebook search's fatal flaw vs Google search: What do your friends know?

I just saw The Social Network, so once again, my love/hate relationship with Facebook is on my mind (or more accurately, my modicum-of-interest/hate relationship with Facebook).

As an aside, The Social Network is a great movie. May or may not be entirely accurate, but if you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan (and who doesn’t love the West Wing), you’ll love it. The story it tell does give some insight into how Facebook got off the ground, with some caveats that the tale is told from a certain point of view. Not an entirely one-sided point of view, but all the facts may not be on display.

Anyhow, this got me to thinking. My understanding is that one of Facebook’s big strategic goals is to take on Google in the realm of search. The theory is that when you’re looking for something, wouldn’t it be great to have your friends’ recommendations for what they think is awesome?

This works great, as long as:

  • My friends have similar tastes and interests as me.
  • My friends have good taste or know the things I need to know.

The problem is that I don’t think you can rely upon either of those prerequisites in a good number of situations.

My friends and family are great people. That does not mean they share the same music tastes as me, read the same books as me or share much in common with me at all.

Now, to be fair, Facebook could remedy that problem. Since people often list their interests on their profiles, they could tailor search results based not solely upon your Facebook friends, but also based on those who share similar interests as you. Those results could even be weighted towards results from your friends who share similar interests with you on the relevant subject. If that is what they plan to do, then their search strategy makes a lot more sense to me.

I still think there is an issue that what I may be searching for might not be knowable by something my friends know. If I have a question about good restaurants in St. Louis, but my friends don’t really have any knowledge about good restaurants in St. Louis, then I may not get good results.

Of course somebody within Facebook is going to know something about restaurants in St. Louis, and some of them might share similar interests with me, so that could always be a fallback, if my friends’ knowledge base is inadequate.

For this to work, however, you have to be explicit about your interests, both through your profile and through posting to Facebook. This is one reason why I think it was a mistake for Facebook to automatically link people’s interests on their profile to community pages (and expose those interests on those community pages if your privacy is public), as well as to automatically share status updates on community pages. Both of these changes created privacy concerns for users, and if they thus pull back from indicating their interests and sharing their status, then Facebook’s search strategy will be less effective.

Google’s search model is different, of course, in that their results are presumably populated with what experts think is the best answer for a particular search. Those experts are determined by people voting with links (as well as a host of other factors).

The problem with this model, of course, is that it is not necessarily authentic. Search engine optimization, in many ways, helps to upset the natural balance of who would be an expert on a possible subject.

But still, when I search on Google, I get the benefit of everybody out there in the world who may be an expert on a given subject, pointing out the links to the knowledge I need. This does not depend on whether my friends know what I need to know or not.

And if I’m signed into my Google account, my search results are further customized based on what Google knows about me, including knowledge of my past searches.

So to some extent, I think the difference between Facebook search and Google search is that it comes down to what my friends know. Smart people, my friends, but I’m not convinced that they have the answers to all the questions I might want to ask. And I don’t want to try to customize my network of friends to make sure they are knowledgable about the things I might need to know.