Graph Search is Facebook’s Bid to Compete with…Everyone

There’s broad agreement in the tech industry that search should be more personal and more social. Google certainly thinks so—that was the whole point of last year’s “Search Plus Your World” initiative, which saw the search and advertising giant begin to customize its search rankings for individual users to highlight material from people connected to them on Google+, its still-nascent social network.

So it’s no surprise to see Facebook, the world’s largest online social network, getting serious about search—and bringing its own unique data and infrastructure to bear on the problem. That was the upshot of a press event Tuesday on the Facebook campus. Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the standing-room-only crowd that Facebook is starting to rearchitect its pages to make it easier for users to explore the world—from TV to movies to travel to restaurants to old photos—using the experiences and preferences of their friends as a filter and guide.

The new social search feature is called “Graph Search,” a reference to the “social graph” connecting all Facebook members, and it combines Facebook’s vast trove of user data with some state-of-the art natural language processing algorithms to give users the unprecedented power to delve into the specifics of their friends’ lives and likes. Graph Search understands almost any social query you can think of, as long as it’s related to a person, a photo, a place, or an interest.

(A few sample queries that returned interesting results when I tried them: “Best photos of my friends in 2011” or “restaurants in Chicago my friends have visited” or “movies liked by my friends” or even “Indian restaurants in San Francisco liked by my friends who are from India.”)

It’s human nature to give more weight to information that’s been filtered by people we know. For that reason alone, Graph Search will create many new occasions for people to visit Facebook. And as users become aware that the information in their profiles and timelines is the raw material for Graph Search, the kinds of information they upload to Facebook may change, making the site an even richer resource than it already is.

But there’s no mistaking the project’s real purpose: to get one step ahead of Google and every other company working to customize search results based on consumers’ preferences and social connections. Viewed through a business lens, the change puts Facebook on a path to competing directly with every company interested in local search, including Yelp, Foursquare, Yahoo, Apple, AOL, CitySearch, CitySquares, TripAdvisor, the Yellow Pages, and, of course, Google.

And that’s just the beginning. Because Facebook has so many members (1 billion and counting) who share so much data (including 300 million new photos every day), and because all that data is connected in a gargantuan mathematical graph consisting of more than a trillion relationships, the company is in a historically unique position to serve up socially filtered recommendations.

Give Graph Search a query like “My friends who like Homeland” and you can immediately see which people in your social graph love the Showtime series—and, more importantly, what other shows they like. (You can short-circuit those two steps by typing “TV shows liked by my friends who like Homeland.”) In one swoop, in other words, Facebook’s project stands to circumvent more than a decade of work on recommendation systems and collaborative filtering algorithms by Amazon, Netflix, and dozens of other search, content, and e-retailing companies.

Then there’s employment recruiting—Graph Search makes it extremely easy to do a search like “My friends who have worked at Google and graduated after 2005.” And dating—“My friends who are single and live in San Francisco.” There’s no doubt folks at companies like LinkedIn and were watching today’s Facebook announcement with interest.

So far, beta access to the Graph Search feature is limited to about a thousand people, including many of the journalists and analysts who attended today’s event. Facebook says it intends to … 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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One response to “Graph Search is Facebook’s Bid to Compete with…Everyone”

  1. “Graph search” seemingly will offer individuals instant group opinion based upon their collective experiences. It sounds like an obvious natural progression from asking a friend/s opinion, but on a larger scale and in an instant. This could be the point at which social media begins to be a major influence in any individual’s commercial decisions, “where did you spend your money…”