At their mysterious press event, Facebook have introduced ‘Graph Search’, a search engine exclusively for Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, was quick to stress that Graph Search is very much not a competitor to Google as it only indexes Facebook. The new tool is designed to find very specific pieces of content — e.g. Facebook friends who like Star Wars – rather than searching the entire web. Ordinary searches are handled via Microsoft’s Bing because Google wasn’t compatible with Facebook’s privacy requirements.
What is “Graph Search”?
The new Facebook search filters the people you interact with most to the top of the results, something that has been lacking in Facebook search of old, where people you added years ago and haven’t spoken to since were ranked above people who you talk to everyday. Facebook also uses “likes” to determine how relevant someone is to you. For example, if you’re planning a movie night, Facebook will index people who have liked similar films to you and show you those people above all others.
What can it do?
Facebook is also integrating local searches through Yelp, which will allow users to search for things like “Café in London” with results returned on what your friends have recommended, as well as Yelp reviews. (Yelp’s stock has tanked after today’s announcement, plummeting 7% to just $20.) The bonus of this system is that people will get reviews from people they know — and presumably trust — rather than faceless people on Yelp or similar services. Whether Facebook will be able to leverage these local amenity results to generate them cash is still in the balance.
Facebook also has another rather novel use for their search: dating. Because Facebook has so much information on a particular person — likes, interests, hobbies, social activity, sexual preference etc. — they can match people up with others who share similar interests. In the demo, Tom Stocky asked Facebook to find him a single man. He then refined the search to those of Indian origin — his friend is Indian — and who live in San Francisco. This is an interesting path for Facebook to take, but it makes sense as they already have so much information about everyone. Whether people will start using Facebook Dating over, say, Match.com is unclear, but possible.
Graph Search can also index Facebook photos in order to find ones that are relevant to your search. In the demo, Stocky asked Facebook to search for “Photos of Berlin, Germany in 1989″, to which is produced a whole bunch of photos that his friends had taken of the torn-down Berlin wall. Stocky also asked Facebook to search for “photos of my friends taken at National Parks” which returned “gorgeous” photos of Yosemite, Machu Pichu, and other parks.
Facebook’s new search can also tailor results for Spotify and Netflix to you, as Facebook can index things that your friends have watched via their Open Graph features. If one of your friends is really getting into The Inbetweeners, Facebook will recommend this to you. Facebook already has a similar system in place, but the new search options will really help in discovery; if you want something to watch, Facebook will be able to recommend something good, in a way Google can’t.
Another interesting thing Facebook introduced is similar to the point above with Spotify and Netflix, but with movies and TV shows. If one of your friends enjoys a show, they can recommend it. This could also become quite a revenue source for Facebook, who could generate money from sales of said DVDs. For example, if a friend enjoys the new Batman film and I wanted a film to watch it, Facebook could recommend and then sell me said film. At a time when Facebook’s stock isn’t pleasing Wall Street, little things like this can go a long way.
You could also search the web via Facebook, however, the query is passed onto Bing, due to the special partnership between Facebook and Microsoft. I have no figures, but I am not convinced that people go to Facebook to search the web; that crown goes to Google.
Facebook is also making it easier to find people who you’ve met in real life. According to Ars Technica: “Facebook noted that the search could apply not only to current friends, but to people a user might have met in real life and “[wants] to meet them on Facebook.” For instance, if a user met at friend of a friend who mentioned he went to Kenyon but didn’t catch his last name, the query “People named Andrew who are friends with Jacqui and went to Kenyon” would locate him” (if his privacy settings allow him to be searchable).”
What does Graph Search mean for Facebook?
Contradictory to what ABC News is saying, Facebook is not going toe-to-toe with Google. The new search does not crawl the web looking for search results, as Google does. Instead, it offers a very personal and tailored experience which, arguably, can only be delivered by Facebook as they know what we truly “like” rather than what we search for. I like the Batman series of films and Facebook knows this, but Google does not because I have never searched for it and haven’t added it to my Google+. People often complain that Facebook is weird and creepy — which it is in some ways — but they’re putting all the information that they know into a product which will legitimately help users in finding relevant things.
Whether Facebook will be able to squeeze millions of dollars out of search, in the same way Google has, is still unknown. Google differs from Facebook as it has a clear idea of what users want (ie, what they’re searching for) so it can tailor results to that. If I search Google for hotel deals, it will stick ads at the top of the page for cheap hotels. However, I only ever search Facebook for my friends’ names which are no use for targeting ads. Facebook has tried promoted search results for pages and apps, but it is unclear how much of a success they are.
When is Graph Search coming out?
Facebook has said that the new feature is in “very early beta” but should begin to roll out by January 16th to English-speaking users, who make up 40% of Facebook’s 1 billion user base (roughly 400 million people). Facebook hasn’t specified a date for other languages.
What about Facebook’s stock?
Facebook’s stock is currently down 2.4%, trading at $30.19 (roughly $8 off its IPO price). Whether this is a minor fluctuation, or a sign that investors are not pleased with what Facebook has to offer remains to be seen. Wall Street have been reluctant to invest in Facebook, after the stock crashed to lows of $18 in late 2012. Only time will tell if Facebook will ever be a Wall Street success.
Update: The Verge has gone hands-on with the new search option, and have posted a long detailed post on their findings. Check it out here.