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Facebook Search Ads: Will The Social Network Ever Offer Them Again?

Of all the topics discussed on Facebook's Q2 earnings call last week, the one that was the most surprising to me were the stats on Facebook's search. Currently, 1.5 billion searches are conducted per day on Facebook. Yes, you read that correctly. 1.5 billion! Per Day! To put that in perspective, Google has 3.5 billion per day. Sure, that 2 billion more is a lot, but not as much as I would have guessed. 

Most Facebook searches are for people and places. They don't have a commercial angle. Yet, anyway. But Zuckerberg said on the call that Facebook is investing heavily in search in the future. Obviously, they see this as a major revenue opportunity. And why wouldn't they. Google made nearly 60 billion in AdWords in 2014). And Facebook is not alone in this understanding. All of the major social channels have improved search functionality in recent months: Twitter beefed up search back in May, providing a cleaner look and feel, and more filtering options. Instagram reformatted and retooled their search as "Discover" and added search to desktop. And Pinterest launched new search on mobile and desktop back in April, helping to correct misspellings and allowing users to more easily find popular pins and trending. 

So what's the end goal?

More users and keeping those users on the social networks as long as possible. Facebook wants to provide enough value and activity that you never have to leave. Google acts mostly as a portal or card catalog, helping you more quickly find the info you need and then leave Google.com as fast as possible. But Facebook is different, offering a distinct advantage. They can provide connections and content all in one place. Let's say you use Facebook to find both photos of your cousin's new baby and a present to congratulate her. That's what Facebook wants. More time spent on their platform means more potential revenue from ads as well as from data. 

For brands, this may mean a more captive audience and more insights about that audience, which means better targeting. If you can deliver an ad to a user that is based on multiple levels of intent and personalization--searching for a keyword; geo-, demo-, interest- and behavior-targeting; and ID targeting across multiple devices--you significantly increase chances of converting users. 

So the question isn't "Will Facebook offer search ads?" The question is "When?" They tested search ads in 2013, but they weren't successful and Facebook stopped offering this ad unit. Likely because people were only searching for people and places, not products or services. The same is true today. But if Facebook can figure out a way to encourage commercial searches, they'll be able to leverage their distinct advantage of connections+content, giving Google a run for its money and giving advertisers an even more successful paid media channel.