Facebook Graph Search could prove more useful to marketers than average users

Lets you search your Facebook world

On Tuesday, Facebook introduced Graph Search, a new search tool that will allow Facebook users to conduct extremely granular searches across their Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) Graph.

Essentially, the search tool gives you the ability to better understand your personal world on Facebook, and possibly discover other people and places you might want to get to know that you wouldn't have known about before.

The new feature was introduced at a press event on Tuesday by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who delivered the much anticipated news. Some were disappointed on Twitter as pre-event hype suggested there would be a big mobile announcement or even a Facebook phone, but it wasn't to be.

Zuckerberg introduced the new search tool and prefaced the discussion by describing three pillars of search on Facebook. The first is what's going on and that's covered by the newsfeed. The second is understanding an individual better and that's the timeline. But it was the third piece that Zuckerberg came to talk about on Tuesday that sparked interest.

That pillar involves learning about specific items in your social graph such as what restaurants your friends like or what books they like to read. This can cross the breadth of your social life on Facebook and the search tool enables you to get at very granular information.

This is very different from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) search. As Om Malik wrote on a live blog of the event, presumably quoting Zuckerberg: "Web-search is going to give you a lot of answers to open-ended query. Graph query is a precise query and returns a very accurate answer."

That's a decent goal actually as far as it goes, and finding out what restaurants your friends like in a given city might be useful on occasion, but I can't see most users going to the trouble to slice and dice the database just because they can. 

The search engine will include four items for starters including people, photos, places and interests. Zuckerberg suggested this is just the beginning and it will expand the search types over time. It appears of these, the photo search tool is going to be most useful.

As for other types of search, I know personally if I want to discover a TV show, I'm much more likely to query my network directly. That's one of the reasons I'm on a social network--to ask a bunch of people I know and trust what their favorite movie, book or TV show of the moment is. It's part of the fun of being on Facebook.

I don't really need to search the database for my friends who live in a given city because I know which of them lives there. They're my friends so of course I do.

Now, I realize some people have a 1,000 Facebook friends and they're actually only real "friends" with a handful, so it's conceivable that you really don't know that certain people live in a certain city---but then you're not likely to look those people up either when you're visiting because you're not close to them.

One group that might very well like this feature is marketers who are probably salivating at the the thought of being able to slice and dice the social graph--much more so than your average Facebook user.

As for privacy, Facebook swears up and down it will not have an impact on it and your privacy settings will be applied across the search engine, but excuse me if I'm a bit skeptical about this claim. If the capability of exposing different types of data is there, the ability to abuse it or even make honest mistakes is going to be huge.

My first impression upon seeing the search entry screen shots was that this was clearly created by a bunch of engineers for their geeky friends, rather than something designed for your mom, who's probably on Facebook these days.

The real proof of the utility of the search tool will come when we can test it and see the quality of the results. It's one thing to talk about how this works and another entirely to test it against the massive database. Will it be accurate? Will it return reasonable results quickly? Will it truly respect privacy? All of this is unknown right now and the announcement demos and the the test queries on Facebook can't really answer these questions.

My guess is that in the end this service will prove mildly useful, especially for photos, but once the hoopla's over and the glitter fades, I don't see it amounting to much or having a huge impact on most Facebook users in the future unless they find a way to greatly simplify it.

For more information:
- see the Facebook Graph Search page.
- see the Facebook Graph Search privacy page (includes sample queries)

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