While you were checked out at the beach last month, Facebook quietly released a new ad format that the company is dubbing “sponsored results.”
The new ads will get inserted into the results dropdown in the Facebook search bar while you are still typing the name of the person, place, app, or company that you are looking for. (Check out the screen grab above for an example.)
I hate the direction Facebook is going with this; I don't think it's good for either users or advertisers. Here’s why.
1. People use Facebook search to find specific things--not to browse or learn
Even if you're searching for Toyota's Facebook page, you probably wouldn't use the Facebook search bar for “new cars.”
So from a user perspective, this is almost always going to be a distraction from what people are actually trying to accomplish. Occasionally it may allow for some spontaneous discovery, but don't count on it--the marketer would need to be extraordinarily in tune with his or her next potential user.
2. Paid ad placements come before genuine results.
Facebook is now a public company, and faces outside pressure (as well as from Facebook employees, I'm sure) to lift its stock price. But it's hard to defend placing sponsored results above organic results as “putting the user experience first.”
Yes, I know Google sponsored results come up above the organic ones, but I believe there is a fundamental difference in user expectations for a Google search results page (a page of possible search results), and the Facebook search box (generally one specific result). So if Facebook is going to go down this path, at least do the user a solid and put the “most likely” (and probably non-sponsored) result first.
3. Marketers can (and will) abuse it.
Don’t get me wrong; as a marketer, I can see the clear potential of this sort of advertising. Essentially, it allows companies to advertise not alongside but above the user's intended search results.
Since it is priced on a pay-per-click model, marketers like me have an incentive to target broad categories or topics--since we only pay when a user decides our ads appeal to them. (This is akin to the flawed Overture model back in the early 2000s, for those that remember it.)
I assume that Facebook will adapt the program by adding some sort of click-through metric or "quality" score, but for now the program seems ripe for marketer abuse, which usually leads directly to end-user dissatisfaction.
4. Brands will need to pay to top their own search results.
As a defensive measure, companies will invariably be forced to pay to come up first under their own brand and product names. I see this as being only a few baby steps beyond Facebook charging companies a fee per "friend" or per status update.
To be sure, this is well within Facebook’s purview--but the companies whose advertising dollars keep the Facebook servers running will definitely not “like” these changes.
5. It’s just plain old annoying.
It’s hard to form a cogent argument that, at the end of the day, this ad format adds to the user experience. That's a marked difference from Google ads, which in their current form actually add to the user experience--especially when users are searching for products or services.
Am I being too tough? Are these just the first iteration? Sound off in the comments and let me know.