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Facebook now lets you poll your friends for local recommendations

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Taking on Google, Amazon, and Yelp

Facebook

Facebook is revamping portions of its mobile app and website to make it easier to get recommendations from friends and interact directly with businesses, without leaving the social network. The central changes can be found in the company's Pages and Events tools, which both help Facebook act as a social nexus for the site's users to stay in the know about what's going on in their community and what their friends are into. Starting today, Facebook will let you poll your friends for recommendations on places to see, restaurants to try, and businesses that can be trusted. Those recommendations then get placed on a map, with links to those businesses individual pages and options to even purchase items direct from the companies themselves.

The scenario Facebook is trying to fix is a simple one. "There’s a concert in town from a band you love and you don’t know about it," says Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's vice president of ads and platform. He's describing what he considers a central problem with modern smartphones, which know so much about our habits and our preferences and yet fail to take advantage of that knowledge in critical ways. "It's well within the capabilities of this device and what it knows about you," he adds. Ideally, Facebook would never let you miss a show from your favorite artist.

Ideally, Facebook would never let you miss a show from your favorite artist

To solve this problem, Facebook is turning to perhaps its most valuable resource: your friends list. By letting users tap into social recommendations, the company hopes its service can begin to change entrenched internet behavior. People often rely on Amazon reviews when trying to discover which product to buy. They also rely on Google's search prowess to point them in the right direction for more general knowledge questions. Facebook, on the other hand, thinks it can leverage the power of the people whose opinions you value, to urge you to ask them for help instead of relying on strangers or algorithmic tools.

It's a subtle but powerful way to keep people using Facebook's app over the mobile web, which is the favored platform of Google. Both companies have made significant efforts of late to promote their respective platforms, each of which earns ad revenue based on how many eyeballs it attracts. If Facebook can change the behavior of smartphone owners — by giving them a better app-based alternative to a standard Google search — it will in turn bolster its business. Facebook's argument is that your friend knows more about which coffee maker to buy, or which concert to grab tickets to, than the cold and algorithmic suggestion of a search engine. "The mobile web is not a great experience for people," Bosworth notes. Facebook would much rather you use its apps instead, which can save your credit card info and keep you logged into a multitude of various third-party services.

"The mobile web is not a great experience."

The goal is for this process to work from start to finish. For example, you'd ask your friends for a good takeout place to grab food in San Francisco, and you'd then get recommendations on a map. From there, Facebook would allow you to place an order from within its mobile app. To facilitate this, the company is now allowing businesses to sell products and services through Facebook. So you can book an appointment with a small business, place an order with a restaurant, or purchase concert tickets through Eventbrite, all without leaving the Facebook app.

On paper, this sounds like a solid strategy. But Facebook will have to convince users that its social network can be useful in newfound ways. As it stands, the company has no plans to prioritize recommendation requests in the News Feed. It's also going to be an issue when only some businesses and services begin using these new Pages features, while others choose not to or ignore them altogether. In the end, Facebook is rolling the dice on whether users will behave in the ways it wants them to, and these features will most certainly live or die based on how well they help people truly find what they're looking for. Because if Google or Amazon can perform a task better, there's no reason to replace a tried-and-true method with one from Facebook.