Facebook Used to Be Fun—Graph Search Makes It Useful

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Probably more than the average user, who spends around 400 minutes on the site per month, or about 13 minutes per day, according to data from comScore. It isn’t exactly wasted time—I’m usually gathering or spreading news and keeping up with my friends by browsing their news feeds, profiles, and photos—but it’s not quite what I’d call productive. It doesn’t help me plan my time or get stuff done in the real world. So I usually feel a little guilty about it. That’s something I’d never say about other online tools like Google or Gmail or Twitter.

But I think all of this is about to change. For better or worse, Facebook isn’t just for socializing anymore. With the addition of Graph Search, the new search utility that the company began rolling out to its English-speaking users this week, it’s about to become a whole lot more useful.

Graph Search, in a nutshell, turns the signature blue bar at the top of every Facebook page into a big search box. Using natural language, I can type queries relating to the stuff Facebook knows about—people, places, photos, and entities with a Facebook page, to start—and get results custom-filtered for me, based on the connections I’ve built and the preferences I (and my friends) have expressed inside Facebook.

Say I’m having trouble remembering which of my high-school classmates went to Michigan State, the university closest to my home town. I can just type, “My friends from high school who went to Michigan State University” and see the whole list. (It turns out there were 10 of them.)

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at this week's Graph Search announcement. Lead project engineers Tom Stocky (left) and Lars Rasmussen (middle), both ex-Googlers, are in the background.

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at this week's Graph Search announcement. Lead project engineers Tom Stocky (left) and Lars Rasmussen (middle), both ex-Googlers, are in the background.

And that’s just a simple example. By stringing together clauses, I can get results of amazing specificity. For instance: “Movies liked by people who like movies I like” or “Friends of my friends who are Web designers and live in San Francisco.” Facebook has spent years accumulating the data needed to answer such questions. But before Graph Search, only programmers inside the company could ask them.

Do these changes mean Facebook will also become less fun? Quite possibly. It depends on exactly how people end up using the feature, and how Facebook goes about monetizing it. I’ve been playing with Graph Search since Tuesday, and I don’t think it’s ridiculous to predict that it will be game-changing. Web entrepreneurs have been talking for years about using social data as the foundation for a new type of online search. Facebook is the first to pull it off.

Here’s the really big picture: From now on, if you’re trying to decide what movies to watch, what albums to buy, what books to read, what restaurants to eat at, or where to go on vacation, Facebook—not Google, not Yelp, not Amazon—could be your first stop, and possibly your only stop. That’s about as big a shift as we ever see in the Internet business, and there is no doubt that it’s going to upset the established order.

I’m not saying that Facebook is about to displace Google. But, by creating a new way to look for stuff, Graph Search also creates a new way to be found, which will change the way businesses think about search engine optimization and search engine marketing. Up to now, SEO and SEM have been all about Google, and how to get the search giant to rank your links higher on Google search result pages. But for the first time since the late 1990s, there’s another serious player in search. (You might count Microsoft’s Bing as a serious player, of course, but Microsoft has allied with Facebook on Graph Search.)

Nobody knows yet what the new tools for optimizing one’s exposure within Graph Search will be. Getting lots of “likes” will certainly become more important than ever, and it’s also possible (John Battelle thinks it’s probable) that Facebook will introduce some way for companies to buy paid Graph Search listings. For the moment, Facebook is staying mum, and says it will focus first on expanding Graph Search so that it includes more types of data, is accessible in other languages, and works on mobile devices (right now it’s Web-only).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All I really want to do with this week’s column is convince you that Graph Search, a project led by ex-Google engineers Lars Rasmussen and Tom Stocky, is a big deal. Facebook says it’s limiting the feature to “a very small number of people” for now, to give it time to test and optimize the feature, so it may be a while before … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Facebook Used to Be Fun—Graph Search Makes It Useful”

  1. Kelly says:

    Facebook is a complete joke! how people get wrapped up in that garbage I’ll never know. The things people will share with complete strangers never ceases to amaze me. http://www.ficksitall.blogspot.com

  2. TDT says:

    Better unfriend that person who liked Coldplay, too . . .

  3. Matthew Petersen says:

    I use facebook like an RSS feed, and little more than that.