Facebook’s redesign shows how important search is for social networks

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Many people will have woken up this morning to another change to the Facebook user interface. You can read more about the redesign over on Mashable, but in summary the social network has:

  • Improved its use of the main panel across the site, but especially for displaying photos. These are now displayed larger and more prominently
  • Made messaging easier - taking it from being on a separate page to being a drop-down on any page. Giving the user immediate and convenient access to their inbox
  • Put all notifications in one place in the top navigation - messages, updates and alerts now all show together in the top navigation
  • Made the search box much more prominent

This last change is, perhaps, the most significant. It is much more than just moving and making the search box larger. It shows the importance of search to Facebook, and indeed to all social networks.

Why search is important in social networks

Social networks and online communities generate a lot of content. In online communities, people are there because they share similar interests, experiences or concerns. They are connected by content and so this content tends to be focused on a set of topics, subjects or questions of interest. In social networks, people are there because they are connected to each other because they know each other, have worked at or been to the same place, live near each other or have some other connection other than just the content. In these places, content will be about a range of disparate subjects, discussed by different people at different times and for different reasons.

The approach to findability in these two environments differs. In online communities search is important, but of equal importance is the way you structure the site, and the way you use taxonomies to arrange and sort content. In an online community for people interested in organic food, for example, you might organise your content so that all your recipes are together, and so that you can easily find all content about sweet potatoes. In a social network it is less easy to organise and then find all the content in this way. So it is less about structure and taxonomies and more about very good search.

Facebook is a great example of a social network where good search would make a huge difference to how much use it can make of, and how much value it can get from, all the content added to it every day. The company’s own statistics claim that 3.5 billion pieces of content are added to the social network every day. If I want to find all the content about, for example, one topic or issue it is currently very difficult for me to do so. Search should be the answer to this. If I search for ‘Holborn’, I want to find events in that area of London, public conversations about it, photos with that place in the description, pages talking abotu Holborn and so forth. Maximising the benefit of all this content will make a huge difference in the way people use the site and the way Facebook can use this content.

Facebook’s more prominent search box is much more than just a design change. It reflects the absolute importance of search in social networks. They are different to online communities where structure and taxonomies can help people to find content across the site. Facebook is huge, but to many of us feels very small. We mainly access content through feeds, messages and notifications. Training us as users to make search an integral part of our Facebook experience will make it a much bigger and more useful tool for us all.

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5 Comments

  1. » Blog Archive:

    [...] Facebook’s redesign shows how important search is for social networks (freshnetworks.com) [...]

  2. Joe Cothrel:

    Good post, Matt. A few random thoughts it prompted for me …

    I wonder if changes to Facebook’s default privacy settings might be relevant here too. Seems to me that more content is now public thanks to those changes, and therefore discoverable by search.

    Your contrast between communities and networks is interesting too. Til now, it seems to me, users on social nets have discovered content through people. I add a friend, so I see their content. Communities work the opposite way — users discover people via content. I search for topics, and I discover the people writing about those topics. Changes on Facebook seem to me less a testament to the importance of search on social nets but rather a significant shift in the way those networks are used.

    A related thought: Social nets are (largely) real-name, and communities are (largely) pseudonymous. Real-names networks have traditionally been hindered by concerns around privacy. Facebook’s success was a surprise in that respect, although the default privacy settings, which made your content available to friends only, clearly tempered those concerns. Facebooks’s evolution to a more content-centric network — if this is what the new search suggests — is a bet that users will grow more comfortable over time with sharing their content with the larger public rather than just their friends.

    I haven’t seen stats on how many people have accepted the new default settings, but I’d be curious …

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