With Universal Search, Is There Now a ‘Facebook SEO’?

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Facebook has finally launched Universal Search, allowing all 2-trillion+ Public Posts by Facebook Users to be Searched.  Previously, Facebook limited their Search feature to posts by ‘Friends’.  For Online Marketers, this move now begs the question: is it vital to optimize your Facebook activity for Universal Search?  Do we need an ‘SEO for Facebook’?

Do we need an 'SEO for Facebook'?Click To Tweet
Facebook Universal Search
Example of Universal Search Results

The question isn’t as easy as it sounds.  In a technical sense, Facebook’s Universal Search can now be considered a type of ‘Search Engine’.  Social Search, however, is nothing especially new: Google+ and Twitter both have competent built-in ‘Search Engines’, Google Search still gives a ranking boost in Personalized Search to Posts by people and pages you follow on Google+, and Bing struck deals with nearly every social player out there to integrate social features into their Search Engine.

What none of this has produced is a radical change in how most people Search the web, i.e. the larger internet beyond the walled garden of this or that  social network.  Facebook itself has dabbled in Search for years, even previously offering Bing Powered web results, yet by their own admission the overwhelming majority of Searches have always been people Searching for other people, pages, groups, and basically everything you’d expect people to be Searching for on a social network, as opposed to using a web Search Engine like Google or Bing.

The question isn’t even whether there’s any demand for the feature (I’m certain there is some demand to Search for content on Facebook itself), or even whether optimizing for this will provide benefits (it probably will), but whether ‘Facebook Search Optimization’ should it be considered a thing worthy of its own Specialization, or is it just another detail for Social Media Marketers to consider?

The answer comes down to whether Facebook’s Universal Search will become a real challenger for the traditional Search Engines, and when considering the priorities of the two companies, this seems very unlikely.  For Google, Search is viewed essentially as a research tool: the user has a query or queries, and Google tries to give the best answer or answers to that query by crawling the open web and, of course, their own ecosystem where appropriate.  They may or may not be factoring Social Signals (Retweets, Google+ Shares, etc…) into Search rankings, but even if they were, no one would mistake their Search Engine for a Social Network.  They’re a Search Company.

Facebook, on the other hand, places social signals front-and-center: they’re going to focus predominantly on Likes, ‘Reactions’, Shares, etc…, and even now you can be certain that your social connections will strongly influence the results that surface.  No one will mistake Facebook’s Social Network for a Search Engine any time soon, either.  They’re a Social Company.

Where the two probably have the greatest overlap, in this case, is when their Users Search for content: if you remember some article you saw on Facebook, for example, you might Search for it on Facebook instead of trying to Google it.  This will depend, in practice, on how many users actually bother to do this rather than just Googling out of habit, and also on how well the two compare with each other in delivering relevant and accurate results that satisfy the Searcher.  No doubt Facebook, like Google, will also seek to improve this experience over time, and to promote a wider array of Searches from users, so it may be difficult to guess the outcome from the initial product.

In the end, however, Facebook Search can only deliver what Facebook itself contains, which limits their area of possible competition with Google to the sort of web content which is sharable on a social network: news, blogs, etc..  While this isn’t the primary source of revenue for Google, which earns most of its revenue through ads on commercial intent queries for products and services, Google does nonetheless earn substantial revenue from Searches for this type of content.

This is an area where the two are in fact somewhat in competition, as the media narrative would suggest, and Facebook is in fact already driving more traffic to major web publishers than Google.  Universal Search may drive Facebook even higher as a primary traffic source to these sites, and Google should worry about that.

However, as I point out in Traffic Quality vs. Traffic Quantity: Which Matters More, the type of referral traffic Facebook drives tends to be more ‘casual’, less ‘engaged’ with the content than Search traffic.  This isn’t Rocket Science: Social Network Users are being Social, and Search Engine Users are Searching for things.

Social Network Users are being Social, and Search Engine Users are Searching for things.Click To Tweet

Universal Search may attract a more engaged type of Facebook user, not unlike Search Engine users, but there is no reason to think it will attract the exact same type of users as Google.  Facebook remains a social network, even if it offers social search results.  A Facebook Post is structured very differently from a website, after all, even if it links out to another website, and a list of Facebook ‘Search Results’ will never be ‘Ten Blue Links’ to outside websites with the content you’re looking for like Google or Bing.

Facebook doesn’t even want that, since they want you spending all your time on Facebook, which is part of why they’re touting Instant Articles for publishers, to keep you on Facebook while you consume that content.  Users don’t want it, either, or they’d have used it back when it was powered by Bing and actually did offer competent web search.  Perhaps, if Instant Articles become ubiquitous, Facebook will make a more direct play for delivering ‘Search Results’, but that hasn’t and may never happen.

For the foreseeable future, Google and Facebook will continue to court largely different types of Searchers, and the overlap between them, where it exists, is unlikely to become an existential battle between the two companies yet.  One or the other may lose or gain some prominence as a source of referral traffic for content publishers, but their aims and core business models will remain very different.

Yes, Facebook’s success in driving referral traffic to publishers is bad for Google, because this is an activity people used to do almost entirely from Search Engines, but up to a point both types can coexist and thrive, especially with billions of new users expected to come online globally over the next many years.  It’s unlikely that a Facebook Only ‘Search Engine’ will either eat up all of Google’s market share, or drive as much Search activity through Facebook as through actual Search Engines, without which it would be hard to justify considering this an area of marketing unto itself.

So then how should ‘Optimizing’ for Facebook be treated, to return to the original question: as a Specialization or as a subset of Social Media Marketing?   There is a cliché among Search Engine Optimizers that may be helpful here:

Design for Users, Not Search Engines

Taken literally, it’s a ridiculous statement, of course you should design your site and content for Search Engines if you want to rank well in them, but metaphorically what it means is, “Design your site to earn a high rank by giving your Users a great experience.”  No matter how high you rank in Search results, in other words, once the User clicks through you’ve still got to satisfy them, which means being the best answer to their question (i.e. Search query).

When it comes to Facebook, the same applies: Design Facebook Content for Your Followers, Not for Universal Search.  Optimization for Social Search should be of secondary consideration to making and sharing engagement-worthy social content in the first place.  Do that, and 90+% of any hypothetical Facebook ‘SEO’ will take care of itself, as your content will be generating the very kind of signals Facebook rewards, and any remaining rough edges where this could be improved for Search specifically can likely be smoothed over by any skilled SEO or Social Media Marketer.

Design Facebook Content for Your Followers, Not for Universal Search.Click To Tweet