Continuing in my series of armchair “oh man Facebook should totally do X” posts, I gotta say, it’s a sad to see Beacon die. Facebook could have used it to build one heck of a product search engine.
Facebook’s biggest problem is focus. When you google for a tennis racket, odds are you want a buy a tennis racket. When you’re on Facebook, you’re seeing what your peeps are up to. Targeted ads are great, but despite doing it very well, Facebook’s revenues are not coming anywhere close to Google’s.
So here’s my theory: Facebook needs to bring back Beacon and build a search engine with it. The goal being that FB should be the first place (before Google) you go to when you want to buy something online.
I think it starts with Beacon resuming collection of data passively with permission from users–not publishing anything in the stream–from as many online vendors as possible. Sure, there are some privacy issues (understatement), but I think they could get around them.
The trick to making people feel normal about FB having this data is to anonymize the purchasers. Say I want to buy a LCD monitor. I search within FB and see monitors with price comparisons (like most product search engines), but I also see that people within my network have made purchases. If they are close enough in my network, Facebook will facilitate connecting me with them. And if the purchaser isn’t my girlfriend who just bought me one for my birthday, the purchaser (who is a friend or friend of a friend) can agree to chat about the product. If the purchaser doesn’t want to talk about it the product (maybe it’s embarrassing or they don’t have the time), I’ll never know who they were.
For the vast majority of cases, this is awesome; you gain the power of friendly knowledge. A few months ago, I recommended a LCD monitor I had just purchased to Hendrickson. I did about 3 hours of research to buy my monitor; he decided to buy the same one within two minutes.
Now there are obvious problems here, the primary being that, even within my extended network, no one may have bought a LCD monitor recently. This is when the power of anonymized collective intelligence comes into play. FB could list LCD monitors by popularity across the entire FB network, by popularity by region and by age groups (e.g. “which monitor is popular for people like me”). They could also do trend analysis to see products that are in vogue (sales of monitor X are accelerating), and the trends of pricing as well (Monitor Y has been dropping in price). Moreover, people might actually trust purchasing data on FB more than they trust the reviews and ratings on online vendor sites.
Also, I think you’d have more overlap on product searches than you’d think, especially since 1) friends typically buy similar things and 2) Facebook is being used to connect with not just immediate friends but with people in your professional and online communities (for me, I’m friending more and more people within the startup and Disney communities). Product decisions are often very relevant within communities (“which hosting company should I use for my startup,” “which resort should I stay at in WDW”, etc).
Another issue would the response time from asking your friends. You’d have to take some concepts from the social search world (think Aardvark) plus maybe some incentives and game mechanics to make it work. It may turn out the social part of product search is just a novelty, and the collective intelligence is good enough.
The collision of product information, search, purchasing histories and the social graph could create something really interesting. Something a small startup can’t build (have to connect with all the vendors), and something that vendors don’t want to do themselves (though I do think Amazon+FB Connect would be hot).