Forget mobile first. Is mobile anywhere in Facebook's DNA?

By Richard Nieva , written on January 15, 2013

From The News Desk

Last fall, I came across an article from in which reporter James Rogers took a guided tour of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. It had been a few months since the company’s dismal IPO, and Facebook was reeling to convince investors it had a bankable, or at least passable, business plan. The company's immature mobile strategy was largely the reason for the slumping stock, so priority No. 1 was convincing the public – and maybe even itself – that the company was rebuilding itself as a “mobile first” operation.

As Rogers explored the facility with a Facebook rep, he noticed a number of Facebookers walking and cycling through the campus’ main thoroughfare. “Walking meetings are very common,” said the flack. “It’s a very, very mobile culture.”

The interview proceeded without any mention of the techy double entendre, but the message was right there. Zuck and Crew are serving the mobile Kool-Aid (which is any flavor but BlackBerry) by the gallon-full, so much so that the company’s spin doctors had been subconsciously or not-so-subconsciously spewing out the word "mobile!" at every conceivable turn, almost like a verbal tick.

Or maybe I’m just cynical.

Either way, in anticipation for Facebook’s big announcement, the rumor mill had been churning, and part of that supposed mobile master plan was supposed to come to fruition today, here at headquarters.

Then Mark Zuckerberg came onstage, and the company announced…a search product. Without mobile integration. Is mobile simply not in Facebook’s DNA? Is the company who bet heavily on HTML before finally -- belatedly -- pivoting to a native app as uncomfortable in this world as Google is trying to do social? So far, we have a bloated, hard to navigate app; a clone of Snapchat, which isn't even a market leader itself; and the only real mobile property that works is the one the company bought for $1 billion.

I really don’t mean to impugn the search announcement. It’s a big one with long-term implications, especially in the revenue department. Zuckerberg even said it would be a big part of the company’s road plan and the focus work for “years and years.” And perhaps the misdirection is a symptom of the tech press’s fanboyism; more of a comment on our expectations than where the company's priorities should be.

Facebook introduced Graph Search, a way for users to scour through their friends’ data and get answers to their queries directly from their friends’ Facebook pages. Unlike normal Web search, “Graph search returns to you the answer, not links to the answer,” Zuckerberg said today.

Users can search through four categories: People, places, interests and photos. For example, someone can type in “Friends who like Game of Thrones” or – the really fun one – “Photos of my friends before 1990,” and voila, baby pictures galore.

Not as sexy as a Facebook phone or new OS, as some people had predicted. But to Facebook’s credit, the company has repeatedly denied that claim, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Zuckerberg was telling the truth.

But nevertheless, the company should have mobile in the forefront of any new feature announcement that effects the user experience this deeply, rather than mentioning it as an afterthought for the future, five minutes before the end of the presentation.

Zuckerberg presumably anticipated the complaints, saying preemptively that the company would have tackled a mobile product, but that those engineers have been tied up building the native Facebook app.

The search announcement is exciting, but it needs to be on mobile ASAP. Only then will it be able to compete with Yelp for restaurant recommendations for people on the go or Foursquare for social recommendations.

Facebook also has a unique opportunity here to tackle the mobile advertiser market: the quicker Graph Search is on phones, the more organically brands can tailor their approaches to the mobile platform. This whole thing is new, and it will take time for advertisers to learn how to leverage it. If they have the phone in mind while they are still forming their ideas, Facebook can become a premier destination for mobile advertisers. While still nacent, ad revenue on phones is growing fast -- $661 million in quarter 2 of 2012, up 92 percent from the year before.

But instead, at a big flashy press conference, we got a feature that's core to the future of the company with no mobile integration right off the bat. Didn’t Facebook say that mobile was to be conceptualized into any new product? Granted, Zuckerberg was quick to mention several times that this is a beta product, and I’m sitting here next to a poster at Facebook headquarters that says “Done is better than perfect.” But this is 2013. Is Graph Search without any mobile integration really "done"? It betrays a worrying mindset that Facebook views mobile as a nice thing to have; a way of rounding the corners; not an essential check on the to do list before launching a product.

In terms of the watch for signs of mobile, the company did reveal something else today about its approach: Facebook is very deliberate about its legwork for big announcements. Two years ago, users were baffled and annoyed when the company rolled out the Ticker function on the right edge of the homepage. A few weeks later, Facebook unveiled Timeline and integrations with services like Spotify and the Washington Post social reader. Ticker was the necessary step in making that work in real time, the same way the Newsfeed was integral to the Platform launch.

In December, Facebook introduced a small padlock icon on the homepage that allows users to easily see what bits of their information are private and viewable. Then today the company introduced Graph Search, and pointed to the padlock as a way to be certain of your privacy.

When the company does decide to tackle mobile in earnest – as it should – perhaps it will leave us some other clues beforehand.

[Image courtesy SimonQ錫濛譙]