Facebook's Graph Search: Big deal or big joke?

Google killer? Yelp destroyer? Hold your horses, folks. Some pundits predict game-changing things from Graph Search. Others are saying it's no great shakes.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
4 min read
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces Graph Search at company headquarters today. James Martin/CNET

We didn't get a Facebook phone, but Graph Search, the social network's beta tool for instant access to people, photos, places, and interests embedded within 1 trillion connections, has equally significant implications -- or maybe it doesn't.

Graph Search, available today in limited release, is Facebook search with context. A bigger search bar offers members a way to type in their natural language queries and find photos from their past, restaurants their friends have visited, music and movies their buddies like, or even potential dates, would-be pals, job recruits, or media sources. When Facebook doesn't have the answer, Bing will fill in the blanks with regular Web results.

"Graph Search enhances Facebook's functionality and makes it more useful to users," Rebecca Lieb, digital advertising and media analyst at Altimeter Group, told CNET. "There's a bit of a LinkedIn dimension -- find people in X city who work for X corporation -- but with strong natural language search capabilities for ease of use."

Forrester analyst Nate Elliott, in a phone interview with CNET, said disdainfully that today's press announcement amounted to basic hygiene.

"For them to call this big news feels like a bad joke ... They're taking an unacceptably bad part of the service and making it usable," he said, adding that Facebook has merely exited 1995 and now has a product actually suited for the 2000s.

Elliott was adamant that analysts and members of the media looking to find reasons to call the reveal a big deal were "desperately trying to find use cases for a tool without a use case in mind." He specifically cautioned against concluding that Graph Search would have any real impact on Yelp, Foursquare, and others in the social recommendations space.

Friends, Elliott said, help you decide what you're going to explore, but you turn to other sources of information to determine if you want to frequent a restaurant or watch a movie. "I don't see a lot of overlap between [Graph Search] and the behaviors people engage in on Google and Yelp."

On the opposite side of the fence are a number of industry pundits who truly believe that Graph Search will have a massive impact on Facebook's bottom line.

"Search, on the face of it, looks like a more minor announcement, but it has tremendous potential impact to users," Altimeter industry analyst Susan Etlinger told CNET in a phone interview.

Etlinger argued that Graph Search will be Facebook's instrument for growth -- that is, the tool that keeps members active as the social network reaches its maximum capacity. "The number of people in the world is finite," she said. "The engine of growth is sharing."

Her colleague Lieb also challenged Elliott's theory of recommendation irrelevance. "As search develops, it could disrupt the business models of social platforms such as Yelp, Foursquare, or Google Local, which help consumers find things such as movies, restaurants, and services based on friends' recommendations."

Julien Blin, an analyst covering consumer electronics and mobile broadband for Infonetics, took the argument a step further. He told CNET that Graph Search could become a major threat to Google and Amazon once it becomes available on mobile phones and incorporates the Facebook Gifts product.

"We could imagine a case where a Facebook user is searching for 'friends who bought shoes in San Francisco.' Then [Graph Search] would pull up a list of shoe stores with comments and reviews from friends," he said. "The Facebook user would have the option to click on the Facebook 'Want' button to buy the items, or even gift the item to other users via Facebook Gifts. This type of service would compete directly with Amazon."

For now, all arguments about the implications of Graph Search on Facebook's business are entirely theoretical. The social network has admittedly launched an extremely beta, Web- and English-only product to a few hundred thousand people. The product isn't even capable of searching Facebook posts or Open Graph actions like song listens, which makes it only partially usable to the members who have it and of no immediate value to brands or advertisers wanting to derive more intelligence about members' interests and relationships.

We won't go so far as to call Graph Search a joke, but Elliott's point about this release being basic site hygiene seems more and more apropos the more we think about it.

"Right now you can't find anything on Facebook, no matter how much you search for it," Elliott said.

Should we be applauding the release of a piece of software that seems long overdue? That's for you to decide.