What's a 'Like' Worth? Ask Facebook's Graph Search

Facebook Search Graph Optimization Becomes As Important As Google SEO

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"How many 'likes' do you have?" Until very recently, skeptics argued that social marketers were obsessed with building social media followings while unable to articulate the value of a fan.

Well, that changes with Facebook Graph Search, which will make the ROI of a Facebook following as easy to measure as SEO efforts on Google. Welcome to the new era of SEO: instead of links and keywords, it's "likes" and "check-ins" that will get your business to the top of the search results.

Hailed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as one of three pillars of the social network (the other two being Profiles and News Feed), Graph Search has the audacious goal of providing relevant search results to a user based on their friends' preferences. For those that haven't been granted beta access to the new feature yet, Graph Search allows users to query their network of friends for their preferences on brands, restaurants, locations, and a variety of other categories. With this new search type, marketers have been challenged with figuring out a new model of SEO to generate business through Facebook.

Mapping connections, interests, and activities on Facebook to real-life interactions is a complicated task, involving evaluation of a variety of activity types on and offline. But, as countless studies indicate that friends' endorsements carry significant weight, this hard work will pay off: 92% of people trust recommendations from their friends, as compared to below 50% for other forms of advertising or endorsements (Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey, Q3 2011). In short, a consumer will go to their friends first when making decisions like where to eat, who to date, where to shop, or where to vacation.

How do business get the first mover advantage with Facebook Graph Search optimization?

First, brands and locations won't even show up in search results or get recommendations without a Facebook page, making it more important than ever to have a presence on Facebook. Most of the use cases for Graph Search involve searching user interactions, so not only is it a requirement for brands and locations to have Facebook pages, but those pages need user interactions to remain relevant. For example, "likes" are one of the connections that Graph Search indexes; when I search for "Insurance agents in San Francisco, CA" I get a list of insurance agents' business pages, prioritized by which and how many of my friends have liked them.

Not only is a Facebook presence important, but Graph Search also exponentially increases the value of "likes" and "check-ins" on the social network. Previously, marketers saw a one-time benefit when those activities were broadcast to the Facebook member's network. Beyond that, marketers valued likes because more likes meant more 'fans' to target in the Facebook News Feed.

Now, the value of these engagements will be evident when a page shows up in Facebook Graph Search results. Similar to strong SEO on Google, the value of Facebook "likes" and "check-ins" will multiply over time and come to play in Facebook Graph Search optimization. As links did with traditional search engines, this engagement over time will create a virtuous cycle in which popular pages show up in Graph Search, making users more likely to engage with those pages, making those pages more likely to show up in future search results, and so on.

Amassing likes isn't the only way Pages can be indexed for search, however. Businesses that have paid for likes with promotions or advertising could be at risk of losing fans and therefore falling out of rank in the search results. A Facebook "like" is not forever; companies need to continue to provide valuable and engaging content to their fans in order to keep the "likes" they've acquired.

Ultimately, Facebook business strategies going foward will need to include mechanisms to ensure that company pages contain accurate, high quality, and engaging content to not only build, but also maintain fan bases. Subscriptions, likes, and check-ins all count as implicit recommendations, and there is a risk that users will remove their connections (likes/check-ins/subscriptions) to brands that they do not want to be recommending. In order to maintain relationships, content and posts from companies will need to be more targeted and tailored to specific audiences, a task which will be increasingly more difficult to accomplish with global brand pages.

Instead, I expect to see the rise of the local page maintained by the local field representatives, as I discussed in an earlier DigitalNext piece. Local pages could capitalize on keywords and data (like location and proximity) that are automatically incorporated into Graph Search results. Furthermore, the ability for local businesses to bring their relationships online, engaging with smaller, more focused communities gives them the opportunity to provide stronger relationships than the corporate marketer who is typically separated from the majority of their audience.

Facebook still has a long way to go before it can go fully head-to-head against Google search, but their entering the search space fills an important gap in social marketing for brands. Despite sophisticated hyper-targeting based on a user's profile and interests, Facebook ads so far typically only address top-of-the-funnel marketuing because the ads platform lacks the ability to target a user based on their purchase intent. Google proved the value of search because, with search queries, users implicitly indicate purchase intent.

Although Google has dominated the search space over the past years, Facebook's rich data set of profiles and relationships allow the network to uniquely innovate on top of the traditional search model, and this should result in much better targeting, click-through-rates (CTR), and conversion rates for brand and local advertisers, opening up what could be a very valuable organic channel for advertisers. This update also takes us one step closer to the inevitable possibility that Facebook will providing paid search marketing as a service to businesses down the road.

Clara Shih is CEO of Hearsay Social and author of "The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Market, Sell and Innovate." She sits on the Starbucks Board of Directors and was named one of FORTUNE's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs of 2011.
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