Facebook’s Graph search introduces a new multi-dimensional tool for discovering people, places and things filtered by your personal friends and likes. The concept isn’t entirely new — Bing has been integrating social data into its results for over a year now now, and the Google Hotpot experiment (failed though it was) featured location- and personal recommendation-based place discovery, as well as a host of Foursquaresque features such as check-ins and reviews. However, Graph offers social search on an unprecedented scale, with access to likes, posts and preferences of users’ entire social network.
It’s been said that Facebook has become something like a search engine for people, and they’re moving into direct competition with Google with Graph. The levels of refinement are remarkable (from geographic location to employer to relationship status to hometown and more). Music preferred by people who live in Austin and Like “Motown”? Television shows for engineers over 35? No problem. Your friends with friends who work at Google? Start flexing those networking muscles.
Local search promises to be another strong point: if you need a plumber or a doctor, you’d trust your friends to make recommendations. With Graph, you can simply discover professionals in the area with a high rating from your network. It’s going to be important for small business owners to start owning their Facebook presence harder than ever.
Of course, the value of Graph is going to depend heavily on the extent of a user’s personal network — even the most dedicated of social networking addicts would be hard-pressed to Like their accountant on the ‘book. But it’s a self-fulfilling cycle: the more things that a user Likes, the more extensive and accurate their data becomes, providing better recommendations, which lead to more Likes, which grows the data further.
Users will also be able to view a comprehensive backlog of the things they’ve Liked over the years — useful for search, but not so much for the nostalgia and/or procrastination-inclined among us. Tom Stocky, director of product management at Facebook, characterizes the new capability as a “third feed” for users: you have Timeline, which allows you to see your own activity, and the News Feed, which allows you to see others’ — now the “search feed” allows you to see an archived history of what you Like (and like, for that matter).
But enough about search ramifications and local business: let’s talk about how this is Facebook going back to its roots as a people engine. I’m of the generation that started using the ‘book when it required a .edu email address, producing a 25-and-under wonderland of a location-based dating site (or hookup machine, if that’s what you’re into). These days, it’s positively weird to get a message or request from a stranger who saw your profile and wants to get all up ons. However, with Graph, the networking potential is enormous — I’ll be surprised if the increased access to data doesn’t lead to a massive uptick in communication specifically via Facebook, or at least reduces the stigma of having an inquiry slotted into the dreaded “Other” box.
Facebook Graph is the company’s first “beta” product, with a waitlist that will slowly open to English-speaking users first, then other languages. It’s tough to offer a value judgment on something so new, but personally, I’m optimistic. Graph’s potential is enormous to users (who doesn’t love getting personal recommendations without the effort of actually making a phone call?), businesses (who stand to gain a lot of notoriety if they play their social media cards right) and marketers (who have access to a veritable treasure trove of incredibly specific demographic targeting data) alike.
Of course, Graph will be most valuable to those who are fully immersed in the service and have friends who do the same — but with Facebook’s 800 million-strong base and the heavy-engagement nature of the service, that’s a hell of a sample size. It’s a smart move for Facebook as a company and a potentially incredible tool for its users. Keep your eyes on this space for further reports as details roll out!