Facebook Graph Search: First impressions

CNET takes a look at Facebook's approach to structured search. Our takeaway: It's good. Very good.

CNET/James Martin

Turn Graph Search on and your Facebook experience will never again be the same. The social network's radical take two on search transforms your entire experience: Graph Search follows you wherever you go and gives you a window to a digital world you always knew existed but never had the privilege of visiting.

On Tuesday, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the company's search product for finding people, places, photos, and interests. Available in limited release, Graph Search is a tool for using natural language to find information hiding in plain sight.

How you use Facebook's new search tool is up to you. There are a limitless number of possibilities, all of which are designed to get your synapses firing and make you that much more hooked on Facebook.

What follows are my first impressions of Graph Search after toying around with it for a few hours.

Powerful and fun

Graph Search for photos taken in San Diego in 1981. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Critics may say that a functioning Facebook search experience is long overdue , and they're right. But with Graph Search, Facebook didn't just release a standard search experience, it created an entirely new use case for the social network: discovery.

Yes, Graph Search is about discovering things you've probably felt entitled to finding on a social network where you go to share memories and milestones. Facebook finally has you covered in the remembering department, at least around old photos and visited places. Sadly, you won't be able to surface old status updates or rummage through real actions (like music-listening activity) for the time being.

Discovery through Graph Search, however, gets really interesting when you think about the ways you can find content in and beyond your own network. Track down photos from last year's Olympic Games. Riffle through a list of Facebook members who live near you and work at your company or a competing one. Zero in on nearby vegan restaurants popular among friends. Then, simply refine as you see fit. Limit your results to items liked by or visited by a select person, for instance.

When you first get access, expect to lose yourself down a never-ending path of quirky discovery. I got wrapped up in "photos taken in San Diego, California in 1981" for no particular reason. I found the results to be emotionally stimulating. Sea World and other landmarks seen through an 80s filter that wasn't manufactured by 20-somethings. There's something kind of special in that.

It's complicated and definitely beta

Graph Search is an open-ended experience that will perplex many at first. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Graph Search is to search what Timeline is to the profile, meaning it's quite unconventional and a bit unapproachable at first.

The average person won't immediately know how to find exactly what he or she is looking for, nor will a newbie understand the myriad things they can search for or find through Graph Search. There is steep learning curve here. Some members will enjoy the process; others will lament the labor. And while the engine pivots around mostly obvious natural language phrases, I can easily see the average person getting frustrated by a loss as to what to type into blue bar to get the results they want.

For these reasons, Graph Search earns its beta label. It will both confuse and delight members in the same way Timeline did. And like Timeline, Graph Search will become a second-nature experience that members won't want to live without in a few months time. Of course, a vocal minority will moan about the bugs and oddities in the meantime.

"Liked by" isn't sufficient, but it works

Graph Search uses a "liked by" filter to surface restaurant recommendations from friends. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

The "liked by" filter for queries is a poor replacement for actual affinity, but it's currently the primary filter for plucking recommended content from friends out of Facebook's search experience. Once Facebook can harvest Open Graph actions -- or the actual behaviors of members using third-party applications -- then Graph Search will be a much better way to get tips for great restaurants, movies, music, and so forth.

In my tests, I noticed, particularly in the restaurants category, that results "liked by" friends can still be quite helpful.

For instance, as a vegan, finding veg-friendly restaurants in my immediate vicinity can particularly painful. Foursquare and Yelp can be helpful, but no single app has ever met all of my needs. I expected Facebook to fail me too, but oddly, Facebook's "vegetarian/vegan restaurants nearby my friends like" results had some solid options. The results aren't perfect but they are passable. I suspect that will be the case for a majority of place-related, liked-by queries.

It's all about the money, honey
As Facebook maxes out on new users, Graph Search will help the company prove to Wall Street that it can continue to exponentially grow another important metric: engagement. Better still, the product has the long-term potential to be a money-making machine. As Altimeter industry analyst Susan Etlinger told me, Graph Search will fill in the dots between the person, the brand, and the preference. This unlocks the potential for brands to provide people with relevant offers for things they actually want.

 

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