Is Facebook Still a Web First, Mobile Later Company?

With no immediate plans to bring Graph Search to mobile, a channel where most Facebook users already access the site today, Facebook is continuing with its top-down strategy wherein most new features come to the Web first and mobile later. It is a more traditional approach that conflicts with the “mobile first” strategy we hear so much about these days, but even more disconcerting is the fact that mobile isn’t even on the radar. While it is widely assumed that Facebook will bring Graph Search to mobile eventually, the company isn’t saying so much as when that might happen. Is mobile still an after-thought at Facebook? Or is revenue for that matter?

Facebook CEO and Chairman Mark Zuckerberg said there are no plans to monetize Graph Search for now. Developer teams still have their work cut out in building the product to a point where it can reach mass adoption, he added. Much like Facebook itself, Graph Search will begin as a free product that could (or will) become a business for Facebook in due time.

“This is a feature that many people have said is lacking in Facebook for a long time,” said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at Altimeter Group. Calling search the “defacto” channel for media consumption today, Lieb said the new natural search capabilities on Facebook will increase user engagement and make the site more interesting and functional for its users.

“I really don’t think they’re building for Web first. I think they’re building search,” she added. “I expect we will see mobile products announced. And I also wouldn’t be at all surprised to find more mobile specific aspects of Graph Search as this rolls out.”

To Lieb, the more interesting aspect of today’s news is not the Web or mobile components, but rather the new use cases that a natural, real-time search function can make possible on Facebook.

“You really don’t have to use very keyword-specific terms to conduct these kinds of searches, and that will make it easier to use on mobile platforms,” she said.

“Graph Search’s immediate impact will be very small,” concluded Robin Grant, global managing director and founder of We Are Social. “It seems that this is a product that has been built without any reference to user need. At the moment it offers little real utility, and requires a massive change in behavior for people to start using it,” noted Grant.

Although Zuckerberg acted coy about converting search into a new revenue stream for Facebook in yesterday’s press briefing, Lieb says it will happen without question. “Facebook absolutely will work to monetize search… It’s first obligation is to shareholders and we certainly have seen many monetization opportunities out of search,” she said.

“I see Facebook expanding on search. They possess oceans of structured data. They could expand this quite substantially,” Lieb added. “What Facebook is offering is extremely different from what traditional search platforms are offering.”

The advertising implications of Graph Search are clear to Lieb and Grant as well. Both are advising brands and marketers to get ahead of Facebook’s search plans by embracing local and capitalizing on the searches that users may begin stringing together. By leveraging the anonymized data that Facebook owns on more than a billion users, it can extrapolate purchase intent and other actionable data from a live search query that would be of great interest to brands and marketers, Lieb added.

“Facebook’s sponsored result ads will become more relevant for advertisers, and ultimately it will mean that raw fan numbers will be much more important to brands, as to appear in Graph Search results a brand will need to have a friend of the searcher as a fan,” noted Grant. “It will also make it essential for retailers, or any business with physical locations, to maintain Facebook place pages for each of their branches.”

While Facebook is not going after Google’s bread and butter in search just yet, many observers assume it’s only a matter of when that direct threat might come knocking on Google’s home page.

“I don’t think people are going to start coming to Facebook to do Web searches instead of this. That’s not the intent,” Zuckerberg said. He also pointed out that Facebook’s search partnership with Microsoft’s Bing still stands and that it would continue to cover searches that either fall outside the purview of Facebook or call up data that hasn’t been mapped and indexed by Facebook for search yet.

Zuckerberg also reiterated Facebook’s willingness to work with any search company so long as they are willing to adhere to the privacy requirements expected of Facebook by its users. When asked if Facebook would ever partner with Google, Zuckerberg paused, adding that he would “love to work with Google,” but “Microsoft was more willing to do things that were specific to Facebook.”

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