I’ve spent some time recently trying to contemplate the upcoming battle between Facebook and Google for the social search market — specifically, whether either company will have substantial influence on giving relevant exposure to law firm services.
To start, let me clarify my understanding of “social search” and the differing approaches taken to it by each company. We’re speaking about the extraction and measurement of opinion: the recommendations and support of your friends, family, peers and online relationships (not all the same, but more on that in a minute). Both Facebook and Google are trying to extract this data from your personal online community; to quantify this affinity, whether positive or negative; and then to provide you with a search product that is influenced by those recommendations.
Where the approaches differ becomes clearer when you examine where each company is coming from. Google is a search product already — it’s attempting to add social data via its public-facing Google+ network. The Google search engine will become ‘social search’, and its users are being coaxed to participate and provide that social data. Facebook, on the other hand, is the 800-lb social gorilla with a huge data-set of personal relationship information but without a search product — until now. Facebook Graph Search is slowly being rolled out.
There are obviously lots of questions for both approaches. Google+ engagement is certainly growing (not as fast as Google would have us believe, but it is), but the data-set they have to draw from is smaller. Even with continued slow-steady growth, Google surely will not match up with Facebook in this regard anytime soon. Facebook, in turn, is trying to gain buy-in from its user community. It may have that enormous social data-set, but it doesn’t necessarily have proper permission to use that data to launch a new search service. So Facebook is trying to force matters by, once again, changing default privacy settings; but that doesn’t give it a clear mandate to monetize information that some consider private.
It’s hard to say how all this will shake out, but the challenges pretty much add up to a race between “Adding social to your search” versus “adding search to your social.”
Will all this social influence add up to a better search product for those of us marketing legal services? I’d say that depends on: 1) what people are searching for; and 2) the demographics of the community they are asking.
My first concern is the query question. Take, for example, “Does anyone know a good divorce lawyer?“. Presumably, your friends and family on Facebook live in the same part of the world as you do. That’s a big plus for local search — an advantage to Facebook, a problem for Google. Now, if the question was to recommend a good local dentist, I’m completely on-board with social search having an influence. But there’s a major difference when dealing with legal matters — you would never throw an embarrassing question (bankruptcy, divorce, criminal defense) out to your network of family and friends. Would you?
So the point to take away here is that neither Facebook nor Google will have seen those types of exchanges — they will have little to no data to call upon to generate any actual relevance for legal matters within their search products.
My second big concern here is demographics. Do users actually value the opinion of their network? I’d say that really depends on who is in a user’s network. Your friends, family, and mild acquaintances might be people you enjoy conversing with, but whether you value their opinion will depend a lot on what information you are seeking. For those marketing business law services, personal networks on Google+ (which tend to sway more towards public-facing and professional relationships) or LinkedIn (which will surely be in this game soon too) will have an obvious advantage. Facebook networks, on the other hand, are rarely cultivated towards any particular demographic, and while they run stronger on common geography, the logical approach for most users will be to ask their social network community their question outright. At least then, you have the opportunity to gauge the source of each response, and you won’t be dependent on a mathematical search algorithm.
In the grand scheme of social search directions, I have to admit that at this stage … I’m siding with Google. Its solution of using social engagement as one of many ranking signals in its search product seems the wiser approach, since the dials can always be turned up or down to maximize influence. Google is much less of a one-trick pony than Facebook, which may have the best social data-set to build their product on, but cannot have the hundreds of other search signals that Google engages to create search engine relevance.