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It turns out some of those capabilities are there, but hidden. Topical searches are easier on Twitter, and search by hashtag is one of that service's strengths, but finding advanced search options requires some digging. Despite the advanced social data mining that's available for advertisers and marketers to use, conducting a search and narrowing it down through social services' native user interfaces is trickier than it ought to be. Rather than presenting a straightforward path to advanced search results, both Facebook and Twitter make you drop down a rabbit hole to get there.
Facebook in particular is a puzzle. Altimeter Group analyst Jeremiah Owyang recently wrote that "search is Facebook's tailbone," the vestigial body part the company is sitting on and failing to do anything with. He seems to think it's plausible that Facebook will grow a working tail sometime soon.
Meanwhile, my tale is this: while preparing a presentation for the Society of Professional Journalists about seeking out sources on social media, I was initially prepared to assert that search on Facebook was essentially nonexistent. My experience was that if I entered a search that wasn't a match or near-match for the name of a person or an organization with a Facebook page, I would occasionally be presented with a smattering of Web search results as a consolation prize. I remembered reading that Facebook had a partnership with Microsoft's Bing on search technology, but this seemed to be the only fruit of it.
While fact checking myself on this, however, I stumbled across a video by Jason McDonald of JM Internet Group revealing the semi-secret sophistication of Facebook search. Even though he starts out by asserting "Facebook search sucks," he revealed several tricks that I never would have stumbled across otherwise. Besides the fact that these features are hidden, my early, underwhelming experiences with Facebook search had discouraged me from seeking them out.
[ The enterprise social networking revolution has been a long time coming -- see what's just ahead. Social Enterprise 2013: Opportunities And Obstacles. ]
The issue is mostly one of navigation. The initial screen of results Facebook displays, as a drop-down list, is more or less as I always thought -- limited to name-based matches to profiles and pages.
However, if you scroll down to the end of the drop-down list and click "More Results," you don't get just more of the same. Rather, you open up a multifaceted series of search possibilities. You can't just hit Enter -- that will take you to one of the initial auto-suggested results on the initial list. You have to click "More Results." That brings up a second list of results like the one below, with navigation down the left-hand side allowing you to narrow your search to people, pages, groups, post content and more.
The "people" search gets richer at this point, with additional drop-down lists allowing you to search by location, education and workplace, or some combination of these. For example, if I'm trying to find people with expertise in forensic accounting, I can now find my way to people who mention that term in their profile and live in my area -- not just pages with the words "forensic accounting" in the title. Instead of searching for "John Smith," I can search for a particular John Smith I know who lives in Boulder, Colo., and works for Wal-Mart.
In general, it's still more efficient to perform these professionally oriented searches on LinkedIn, but there are trade-offs. LinkedIn has only a fraction of Facebook's membership, which passed 1 billion active users earlier this year. On the other hand, professionals with an instinct for self-promotion are more likely than the rest of the population to be on LinkedIn, and they provide more detailed professional information about themselves there. Facebook's people finder tools are more geared to helping you locate your old high school friends.
These more detailed search results also make it possible to see conversations on any given topic, whether it's forensic accounting, the fiscal cliff or The Hobbit. You can see either posts by people in your friends network or public posts (content that was posted without restrictions on its visibility).
For the local businessperson trying to identify a market opportunity or the local journalist seeking sources, it would also be handy to be able to narrow a search of posts by geography, but the Facebook search user interface doesn't seem to provide a way to do that.
The Twitter advanced search user interface makes it relatively easy to narrow a topical search to within so many miles of a city or zip code. Expert users can also take advantage of search operators to narrow a search like "dog groomer" near:"33071" within:15mi. You can also start with the advanced search form and then tweak your search, for example by expanding the search radius from within:15mi to within:50mi.
But how do you find that advanced search form? Unless you already have a bookmark to it, you might find yourself doing a Web search for "Twitter advanced search" or rooting around in the help section of the Twitter website. There is a navigation path to the advanced search screen, but it's subtle. First you enter your basic keyword search, then click on the gear icon that appears on the search results screen. This displays a little drop-down menu with "Advanced search" and "Save search" as the two options.
You would expect Google+ to have advanced search features, but I remember being disappointed at the lack of them when the service first launched and provided little more than search by name. That's changed, and you can now search through posts and conversations in a very rich way.
Not unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google+ starts out by presenting a simple search blank and then provides options for narrowing your search on subsequent screens. You can toggle from seeing "Everything" to just "People and Pages" or just posts, sparks, hangouts or events. Additionally, you can narrow the results to just posts from your circles or those either from you or to you. There's a search by location, although rather than being a search by home location this is a search of geocoded posts such as those from a smartphone with GPS enabled. In other words, if you search by "Miami, Fla." you're as likely to find posts from tourists as from people who live in Miami.
Some but not all of the standard Google search operators also work on Google+, as in the example below using a wildcard to indicate the missing word in the phrase "a penny saved is a penny earned." There are still cases where it makes sense to exit out to google.com and search with site:plus.google.com as a parameter: for example, searching by the home location listed in someone's profile.
Perhaps these "hidden" search features are merely hidden in plain sight. Among other things, social networking is a different way to navigate to content. Most of the time that we go to these sites, we're not looking to search; we're looking for the latest from our circle of contacts. But for the journalist, market researcher or researcher of any sort, I hope this information will prove useful.
I had never noticed, until working on this article, that the link to "Advanced Search" doesn't appear on Google.com's opening screen, either. But plugging "advanced search" into Google.com brings up Google advanced search at the top of the listings, and every search-results page shows the link to Google's advanced search form at the bottom. Twitter advanced search is second on the list, which suggests to me that's one a lot of people have been looking for. And while it can be dangerous to read too much into search rankings, I find it interesting that Facebook advanced search isn't anywhere on the first few screens of Google search results. I suppose that could be due to some bias, given Facebook's rivalry with Google (although I see a similar pattern on Bing). Just as likely, however, no one is looking for advanced search on Facebook because they don't expect it to be there.
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