Facebook CEO's 'search' comments raise hopes, questions

by Reuters    Sep 13, 2012

Facebook SearchFacebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has fired a warning shot that threatens to ignite a battle to marry social networking with one of the most valuable areas of the technology industry: search.

Long dominated by Google, the Web search market represents a “big opportunity” that Facebook is uniquely positioned to address, Zuckerberg said on Tuesday at a tech industry conference in San Francisco.

Zuckerberg’s comments, the clearest signal that Facebook is eyeing one of the Internet’s most lucrative markets at a time when its own advertising revenue growth rates are slowing, helped shore up the company’s battered shares.

The 28-year old CEO’s first major public appearance since Facebook’s IPO provided much-needed reassurance to Wall Street, as Zuckerberg highlighted progress in the company’s mobile business and expressed confidence in Facebook’s future money-making prospects.

But it was Zuckerberg’s talk of search that had Wall Street analysts and technology insiders abuzz on Wednesday, even if they couldn’t agree on what exactly a Facebook search service would look like or how imminent such a service was.

Facebook “might be the only company on earth that I think could truly go up against Google and win on the search side,” said Gerry Campbell, who has been involved with Web search at various companies for more than ten years, including as an advisor to Summize, a search engine for Twitter messages that was acquired by Twitter in 2008.

Facebook doesn’t need to create an index of every site on the Web, as Google does, to be a useful search engine, he said.

The massive amount of data that Facebook has about all the activity on its 955-million-user social network as well on external websites that feature its Like button represent a partial index of the Web that would be satisfying enough for most users, said Campbell, who is now CEO of tech consulting firm Frequency Group.

Bill Gross, who developed the search advertising business model that now underpins search businesses such as Google and Microsoft, said much would depend on the scope of Facebook’s ambitions.

“I don’t think people care about ’social search’ itself, but they do care about getting better search results,” said Gross, the CEO of Idealab.

If Facebook can figure out how to use the information in its social network to provide consumers with better Web search results, the company could steal more market share “than just about anyone else,” he said.

Google had 66.4 percent of the U.S. search market in August according to research firm comScore. Microsoft’s Bing had 15.9 percent share and Yahoo Inc had 12.8 percent share.