Search vs. Social: The 50 Shades of Gray in Online Information Retrieval
- under Media Coverage
Facebook is reportedly working on vastly improving what has long been poor search functionality on their ubiquitous social network. Even given the $15 billion dollars at stake in search advertising, Facebook doesn't seem interested in diving headfirst into battling Google by indexing the web.
News of an improved Facebook search engine led the tech industry to wonder aloud if Facebook – despite employing few traditional search engineers – could spell a genuine threat to Google’s global search dominance with vastly improved search functionality. One survey also revealed that users are cool to the idea of a Facebook search engine to rival Google's.
The question itself – whether a Facebook with improved search poses a genuine threat to Google’s online search dominance – presupposes, either implicitly or by implication, that online information retrieval is an either/or:
- Either Facebook (social) triumphs as the medium consumers turn to for online information retrieval or Google (search) does.
This assumption characterizes user information retrieval behaviors as black and white when in reality they are many shades of gray. Users’ information retrieval habits are contextual – they vary based on the context of what the user is searching for and, in turn, the platforms they use. With these assumptions in hand, we’d like to challenge the convention and postulate that Facebook won't be replacing Google any time soon.
Surveying How Users Retrieve Information Online
To test this assumption and gauge user behaviors, we surveyed a group of web users to determine how often they turn to social and search platforms for their online information needs. While our sample size of 100 won't win any academic research awards, it should give us a sense of a user’s online information retrieval behaviors.
In a series of information retrieval situations, users were asked to indicate the frequency in which they turned to social (e.g., Facebook) and to online search (e.g., Google). For example, we asked:
For each of the following, indicate the frequency you turn to online search (e.g. Google) versus a social network (e.g. Facebook):
1. News/Current Events?
Note that to measure their online information habits on search and social, users were queried about the frequency they turn to each independent of each other. For example, for content discovery, they could indicate they use search "often" and social "often" as well.
We asked users to indicate the frequency they turn to social and search in a number of retrieval scenarios, including:
- News/Current Events
- Shopping/Product Research
- General Information Retrieval (e.g., “height of the empire state building”)
- Entertainment/Local Events (e.g., restaurant recommendations, concerts, cultural events...)
- Job Search/Careers
- Discussion (talk about current events)
- Content Discovery (music, TV, movies...)
Read the Full Search Engine Watch article here