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Graph Search Optimization: What Facebook's Social Search Means for Brands

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With the introduction of Facebook search aka Graph Search, brands with multiple locations will soon find their Facebook strategy turned on its head. Which is to say that the value of marketing on Facebook is about to shift dramatically and disproportionately from the brand level to the local level for these types of companies.

If you've not heard about Graph Search, it was announced on January 15 and is being positioned as the third pillar of the Facebook platform alongside the Newsfeed and Timeline. Timeline is where you post content. The Newsfeed is how that content gets distributed. And now Graph Search is how you can leverage the connections between your friends and the brands they like to generate unique and personalized search results. In other words, Graph Search enables you to search for the best places to eat, to shop, to stay -- to buy insurance or to find a plumber -- based on shared social connections; the results are implicit recommendations from trusted sources. With Graph Search, Facebook is opening a new world of social discovery by unlocking the value of our likes, check-ins, photos, and more.

Here's what the results look like when searching for TGI Friday's in Los Angeles:

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The challenge for national brands in the restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries -- any company with multiple locations -- is that they've invested nearly all of their Facebook resources into building and supporting brand pages for the purpose of publishing content and managing customer relationships at the corporate level. But these brands don't do business at the corporate level. They do business at the local level through large, brick-and-mortar networks. When it comes to Graph Search, these physical locations and their corresponding local Facebook pages are what really matter. Here's why.

At MomentFeed, our mantra for the past year has been that Facebook is giving local pages an equal voice on the social graph. This means that local pages are every bit as important and likely to surface as a brand page. In particular, it means that mobile is elevating local pages to the same stature as brand pages because this is how consumers engage at the local level. We noted last year that Facebook was taking seemingly deliberate steps to "seed" local pages with fans by directing users to local pages at the expense of the brand page. This happened at several points throughout the year across every brand we track. Inexplicably, local pages started generating massive numbers of fans, as if Facebook had flipped the local switch.

The below graphs show this for Dunkin' Donuts and Walgreens. We have graphs for Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and 7-Eleven that show the same trend.

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This appears to have set the stage for Graph Search by establishing the local connections that are vital to making this new search paradigm function for multi-location brands. Because if you're seeking a local result e.g. a restaurant, the fans of a corporate brand page are essentially worthless.

To illustrate this point, consider the following example: a Facebook user queries her social graph to find a quick place to eat in Santa Monica or an inexpensive place to workout in New York City. She's not going to see results based on friends who are fans of Chipotle or 24 Hour Fitness i.e., their corporate brand pages. Why? Because the search result would point to their respective corporate headquarters, if anywhere. The goal of a search is to get answers. The answer to a food query in Santa Monica should be an actual restaurant, complete with directions and a phone number... not a brand that markets quick-serve Mexican food. The answer to a workout query in New York should be an actual place to workout...not a brand that markets low-cost gyms. This is how Graph Search will work. The answer to a place search -- and the potential for consumers to discover new places -- relies exclusively on social connections at the local level via local pages.

So when we say that the Facebook marketing strategy for multi-location brands is being flipped on its head, this is no exaggeration. The vast majority of value generated from Facebook for these companies will come from their local pages. As such, brands will want to shift resources accordingly and take the following steps:

  1. Claim local pages under the Facebook Parent-Child relationship
  2. Update pages with accurate contact details, categorization, and geocode (lat/long)
  3. Identify and merge unauthorized duplicate pages for each location
  4. Encourage customers to like, check-in, recommend, rate, and tag photos to local pages
  5. Publish authentic and relevant content to local pages
  6. Benchmark local page performance against competitors on a one-to-one basis

The benefits of Graph Search Optimization can be substantial. First, it makes local brick-and-mortar businesses available in the search results. Next, it increases the likelihood of being discovered and generating real-world referral traffic. This amounts to new customer acquisition. Finally, these new customers can opt in to receive content and offers by liking the page. When all of this occurs in a virtuous cycle, it will create a tremendous competitive advantage at the local level that can actually be measured.

What is important to note about Graph Search is that publishing brand content is less important than it was in the Newsfeed/Timeline era. The vital aspect of Graph Search is building and maintaining social connections: fans, check-ins, recommendations, ratings, and photos. The latter is especially valuable because Graph Search treats photos as a category unto itself. If a photo is tagged to a local restaurant, retailer, or hotel page, users can discover these places by querying their friends' photos.

Indeed, these myriad social connections are much like the Web links that get factored into Google Search results. These Facebook connections provide the reputation, relevance, and weighting that power the Graph Search algorithm. And like Google, the quality of these connections is just as important as the quantity. The big difference is that the results of every Facebook search are unique to the individual user. They are personalized based on their social connections. While it's easy to test the effectiveness of Google SEO -- you do a search and check the results -- this is not the case with Graph Search. As such, optimization will be much more challenging, requiring specific tools and tactics.

The good news is that Graph Search is just starting to roll out in beta. It will require the adoption of new behaviors among Facebook users, and it will take some time to perform as intended. Nevertheless, brands that move quickly and deliberately to take advantage of this new search paradigm will gain a competitive edge just as first-movers in Google Search and Facebook Pages did in the past. Make no mistake, though. With the introduction of Graph Search, the value of Facebook marketing for multi-location brands is making a final shift to the local level.

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