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Facebook Graph Search: e-commerce bust or boom?

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 12, 2013 11:00 AM

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[Editor's Note: In case you missed Global Business Hub Contributor Ellen Keiley's segment on RadioBDC earlier this week, you can listen to it here.]

[The We are the Creative Industries series: The Creative Industries - video game companies, design, marketing and architecture firms, and talented people who write books, design houses, shoot movies, make art and record music, just to name a few examples - are an important part of Massachusetts' economy, with $1 billion statewide impact and over 100,000 workers. Click here to learn more.]

As the CEO of an e-commerce business with over 2,000 shops on Facebook, I have a unique perspective on Facebook selling. After two years of testing, my company sees fewer sales from our global Facebook presence than from orders originating in New Zealand, where we don’t have a marketing or sales presence, or a country-specific website. Quite frankly, Facebook has been underwhelming for sales generation.

Facebook, in its current form, is not the answer that e-commerce is hoping for. Consumers visit Facebook for social reasons and do not want their social time interrupted with companies trying to sell to them. It would be taboo in most social settings or would you tolerate a business trying to sell to you while you’re enjoying a nice pint with friends in a bar?

Graph Search might be the answer that e-commerce has been hoping for if it can change the behavior of users to combine both search and socializing. Of course, this would be a delicate balancing act: no hard sell would work in this model but rather as the search results provide better data about the user and their network makes recommendations, a relationship could begin with the user and the recommended merchant or service. Facebook’s Graph Search will be meaningful for e-commerce when it successfully bridges the gap between search and social and continually retains community referrals without breaching user trust. The real success of Graph Search will require deft management of expectations of e-commerce retailers and the Facebook user experience.

Facebook Graph Search
Facebook’s Graph Search is a highly personalized search engine within Facebook that customizes responses to users based on feedback and interests of their social network. Facebook considers their interactions with friends and brands and integrates it to give them what it considers to be most relevant responses.

Unlike normal search engines that can drive response by SEO or product review sites that can be altered and edited by companies for image control, Facebook Graph Search will attempt to build off of our inherent trust of friends’ recommendations. In theory, this means the searcher will get results they can trust.

As an e-commerce business with a high level of trust and very happy customers, this is an exciting proposition for us. Our continual efforts to ensure Spreadshirt customers get impeccable value, service and quality as compared to our competitors could really result in a Search Engine advantage. Our customers continually rate us highly in regular Facebook activity.

Will it work?
Facebook is currently seen as a hangout. Facebook is expecting that there will be a monumental shift in public perception and utilization of the platform. Users are supposed to use it as both a buying search engine and as a networking site.

The user expectation is still all about social connections and the mere ability to offer targeted commerce does not mean that the user will welcome or positively embrace the new Graph Search features and become more active consumers in Facebook.

Don’t go the way of Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos
Before Google’s rise, we were inundated with a plethora of search options. Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos all fell from grace because they forgot what made them meaningful. They lost sight of their roots in search and branched out to force content on the user. We all know how that strategy paid off and history may be repeating itself if users don’t respond to the search feature. However, any social site needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant and engaging to users. If Facebook users eagerly embrace the new search feature, the relevance of the site and the engagement level of loyal users may be raised.

The potential for users to turn to Facebook to explore shopping, dining, or travel ideas based on referrals from their friends can be huge. However, I must temper my enthusiasm with a valid concern that Facebook could be losing focus on what made it great – it became popular because it is an awesome social site for friends and colleagues to remain in touch. Facebook will have to be highly skilled in balancing their social community core identity with any new future enhancements or offerings.

Why we should still pay attention
While Facebook’s current efforts may not pay off, any good business leader acknowledges that they must always have an open mind about a changing business environment. Find out more about Graph Search’s capabilities and how your business could benefit. And as the Graph Search feature gains traction, good community management from e-commerce will engage users if the interactions on Facebook are inspiring and activating. The relationship in Facebook is not about boosting sales figures but building a fan base.

As the CEO of an e-commerce business, I know that regardless of the limitations of Facebook, I must pay attention to what’s going on in the social giant. For the near future, the 1 billion users on Facebook are not going anywhere and it is up to business leaders to figure out how and if they should connect with them for commerce or for business conversations.

Philip Rooke is the CEO of Spreadshirt, the leading e-commerce platform that lets anyone create, sell and buy ideas on things consumers love to wear, use, and carry. Spreadshirt's US Headquarters is in Boston.

[We are thankful for Global Business Hub’s support of the Creative Industries. Please note: This article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development or its Creative Economy Industry Director for the Commonwealth, nor is it an endorsement of any views, products, or opinions contained therein. The author is solely responsible for the content.]

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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