Facebook One Of The Top Search Engines? I Dunno About That!

I shouldn’t — but I couldn’t resist doing a quick poke at Facebook’s pronouncement that it is the "most used people search engine on the web." Really? According to? Facebook gives some stats that perhaps back up this claim, but only if you consider Facebook a people search engine.

I don’t. Not yet. It’s hard for me to consider something a people search engine when, until last September, it didn’t allow most people to actually register with it. Of course, I don’t need comScore’s latest stats to tell me Facebook is taking off since then. The drip-drip-drip of people asking to be my friend since I joined up a few weeks ago lets me know it is gaining ground.

It is a drip-drip, however, not a firehose blast. I’d wager most people I actually know personally are not on it. Curious, I just searched for three college friends. None of them are there. I’m not surprised, since I was in college so long ago we didn’t have email addresses — something that was an initial barrier to getting on Facebook.

By the way, I searched for all three of them on Google (violating today’s Google Free Friday proclamation, but I have a point to make). Google had all three listed first for their names. Yahoo, Windows Live and Ask also all listed them first or in the first of results.

In terms of people search, any major crawler is likely to be more comprehensive in getting you some information about a person. And during a recent discussion on people search, someone presented stats that about 30 percent of queries are people related. Apply that to Google, and its chunk of "people search" is more than double Facebook.

Let’s dig into some numbers. Facebook posted that it does 500 million searchers per day, making it "one of the top 20 search engines on the web, in terms of number of searches."

Heh. Let’s go with that for a second, however. Both comScore and NetRatings put Google at 4 billion searches for May 2007 in the US. In the US! Worldwide, you’re probably looking at twice that figure (and Facebook is almost certainly talking worldwide figures for itself). But let’s stick with US figures for the general purpose search engines. Next highest is Yahoo at around 2 billion, then Microsoft around 700 million, then Ask and AOL both in the 400 million range. These are all rounded, but they make the point — if Facebook is at 500 million, dude — you’re in the top four, not top 20!

Of course, care to estimate how many searches happen on Amazon each month? I have no idea, and after some quick searching, I could only find Amazon talking about processing billions of queries worldwide. But 500 million searches per month wouldn’t surprise me. So much of what you do at Amazon is search driven. So does that make it one of the top search engines on the web?

Not at all. To me, "search engine" is short-hand for general purpose search, for finding stuff overall. Unless you provide a comprehensive search experience, please don’t go claiming to be one of the top search engines on the web.

That’s not to take away from the technical achievement Facebook is hitting. That many searches is huge, and as a people search engine, it might well be a leader in the space. But being a top people search engine is an entirely different thing that being a top search engine, period.

As for being the top people search engine, more issues. There are lots of "people search engines," and what you get back from them can vary wildly. Is it people search when I hit:

  • Classmates, to find high school friends
  • LinkedIn, a rival of Facebook
  • Wink, which meta searches places like Friendster and LinkedIn
  • Pipl, which also meta search
  • Google PhoneBook, which brings matches from public phone book records
  • Zoominfo, the long standing site that searches for people info from the open web, among other sources
  • Spock, which seeks to be a people search engine of choice, whenever it finally comes out of private beta

Some people will hit these places not seeking a particular person but people in general, people to connect with. That’s much different than trying to locate a known individual, which is what I’d consider a "people search." Does Facebook distinguish between the two? If so, what’s the bigger chunk.

I’d say before anyone declares themselves the biggest people search engine, there are a lot of basic definitions that need to be put into place. As for just taking a lot of searches and saying that makes you one of the most popular search engines — don’t play that game, unless you let me find a needle in the big old general haystack of the web.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search Engines: People Search | Search Engines: Social Search Engines | Stats: Popularity


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.wolf-howl.com graywolf

    I just hired a bunch of bloggers and two of the things I searched for were [john smith facebook] and [john smith linkedin].

  • http://www.daviddalk.com/createvalue/ DavidDalka

    I just searched for you in Facebook and didn’t find you.

  • http://www.shapeable.com SeanIM

    Everytime I hear about Facebook I just get a chuckle out of remembering this article:

    “During one series of talks with Microsoft, Facebook executives told their Microsoft peers they couldn’t do an 8 a.m. conference call because the company’s 22-year-old founder and chief executive, Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, wouldn’t be awake… Microsoft executives were incredulous.”


    So, when is The Big G going to buy this thing already?

  • http://blog.vortexdna.com Kaila Colbin

    Right on, Danny!

    I agree with your initial evaluation of what does and doesn’t constitute a search engine. Self-definition is a big challenge for new online technologies — you want to be new but not too new, and in order for people to understand and appreciate your value, you frequently have to define yourself in terms of older technology. We face that issue regularly at VortexDNA, but the solution is not to exaggerate what you do by making inappropriate comparisons.

    The difficulty is how to describe fantastic achievements in a simple way. In this case, FaceBook could have easily run the numbers and made its claim more accurate, less hyperbolic, more impressive — and less subject to being torn down.

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