March 16, 2011 at 11:24 AM ET
With the recent approval of an automatic "curated" search patent, Facebook could well be moving into Google's territory and making it at least a little nervous as the social network's 600 million users (and growing) could use the algorithm to find answers to their burning questions amongst their FB friends, rather than go outside of it.
The patent, "Visual tags for search results generated from social network information," which was approved about a month ago, gives Facebook the ability to generate search results and rank them according to a link's popularity within a person's group of FB friends. The more friends a person has, the more likely to get somewhat meaningful results. But even those with fewer than several hundred friends could benefit since Facebook can expand the definition of a person's social network to include a few degrees of separation.
The invention provides still another technique to improve the relevance of search results. According to an embodiment of the invention, search results, including sponsored links and algorithmic search results, are generated in response to a query, and are ranked based on the frequency of clicks on the search results by members of social network who are within a predetermined degree of separation from the member who submitted the query. The predetermined degree of separation is equal to one if the click activities of only the friends of the member who submitted the query are to be examined.
The power of this particular development lies in recommendations, and how we've increasingly become attuned to them, more likely to follow something or click on a link if we know a friend already has vouched for it. That, paired with Facebook's existing use of Bing in its internal searches, may signal an option for search that takes off. Maybe. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Business Insider's Pascal-Emmanuel muses, "It's at least conceivable that with enough tweaking Bing and Facebook could combine in some way into serious competition for Google."
For those who might laugh off any attempt to usurp Google, "social search" has some applications that may end up being a game-changer. "Wired In" columnist Erik Sherman gives us some scenarios that don't sound so far fetched:
Search sounds limited, but it isn’t when you realize that many activities on the Web could be said to involve search and clicking a like button could be said to clicking a link. Want to buy a book? You search for a title at a reseller like Amazon (AMZN) or Barnes & Noble (BN). Want to read something? Here’s a list of articles, voted by your connections, no matter what publication created the content. Want to buy something? Here are the recommended items and where you can purchase them.
The patent turns a social network and its relations into a way to augment search of any type. Given the frustrations many have with being overwhelmed by search results, Facebook has a potential huge advantage over search companies. It may also have locked down a monetarily valuable aspect of social network data that none of its direct competitors have capitalized on. This is one strategically brilliant company.
What do you think?
More Facebook stories: