Facebook takes on Google with Graph Search

The search engine will allow people using Facebook to more quickly find answers to questions about friends in their Social Graph.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. CNET

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Graph Search at a press event today at the company's Menlo Park headquarters, billing it as a new way find people, photos, places and interests that are most relevant to Facebook users.

Graph Search is the social network's newest way for users to make sense of its massive base of 1 billion users, 240 billion photos, and 1 trillion connections. The tool is meant to provide people the answers to their to their questions about people, photos, places, and interests. Zuckerberg said Graph Search is launching to a small number of people today and is available only on the desktop and in English for the time being.

People can use the structured search tool to resurface old memories, find people in their network, and uncover potential connections. The service incorporates various filters such as "place type," "liked by," and "visited by friends" to make locating things faster. You can refine search queries with more advance filters to get better answers.

One example demonstrated was a very specific search for "Friends of my friends who are single male San Francisco, Calif." That refined query returned a select group of people who fit the criteria. Apart from personal use cases, Graph Search can be used for dating and recruiting purposes, which could make the product a potential challenger to LinkedIn and various dating sites that incorporate social network profiles.

But the personal use cases do abound. A query for "photos of my friends before 1990," for instance, popped up a number of cute kid photos, including a shot of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from 1972.

CNET

Graph Search is going to appear as a bigger search bar at the top of each page, replacing the usual white search bar. Facebook said that when people search the service, that search both determines the set of results you get and serves as a title for the page. "You can edit the title -- and in doing so create your own custom view of the content you and your friends have shared on Facebook," according to Facebook.

Graph Search Facebook
Zuckerberg noted that Graph Search and Web search are very different. The latter was engineered to take a set of keywords -- Facebook's example was "hip hop" -- to come up with possible results that best match the keywords. By contrast, Graph Search combines phrases. The other obvious difference is that each piece of Facebook content has its own audience, and for the most part that content is not public. Alluding to the obvious privacy concerns, Zuckerberg said that Facebook built Graph Search from the start with that in mind, and it would respect the privacy and audience of each piece of content on Facebook.

Traditional Web search, though not the focus of Graph Search by any means, is still incorporated into the beta product. Facebook has partnered with Bing to automatically supply answers to queries that the new Facebook engine can't compute.

On the business side of things, Facebook does not intend to immediately monetize this new asset. But that's certainly on the agenda.

"This potentially could be a business over time. For now, we are focused on building user experience," Zuckerberg said. "We have had sponsored search results for a while. ... That extends quite nicely to this, but we haven't done anything new for this release."

Graph Search is being rolled out today in limited preview.

Last week, the social network sent out a media invitation to "Come and see what we're building," fueling speculation that it would finally unveil a Facebook-branded phone. Wall Street's expectations have been equally high with the company's stock trading above $31 a share, a price point it hasn't seen since its May 2011 Nasdaq debut.

But the phone rumor proved to be bogus and Wall Street's immediate reaction was to sell. After reaching a high of $31.71, Facebook's shares reversed course and fell as low as $30.20 during the course of Zuckerberg's presentation.

Mark Zuckerberg watches fellow Facebookers demonstrate Graph Search.

Perhaps even more important than direct monetization is Facebook's ability to keep members engaged on the site. Graph Search, according to Forrester analyst Nate Elliott, has the potential to do just that:

"Facebook's worst nightmare is a static social graph; if users aren't adding very many new friends or connections, then their personal network becomes less and less active over time," he said. " Terrifyingly for Facebook, that threat is very real: We haven't seen significant growth in the average number of friends per user recently. Graph search seems designed to encourage users to add more friends more quickly. If it means users' personal networks change more frequently, and become more active, then that keeps them coming back to the site -- which is vital to Facebook's success."

 

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