Since its inception, Facebook has managed to accumulate an extraordinary amount of social data, with its billion subscribers contributing some 240 billion photos and a trillion connections to the network. Facebook’s new Graph Search, launching in beta, is a tool for searching through that mountain of data.
Unlike Bing or Google, which search the Web for the best results matching certain keywords, Graph Search will only surface information from Facebook, including people, places, photos, and interests. For best results, users can link keywords into ultra-specific phrases—i.e., “Friends who live in San Francisco and like sushi,” or “Photos of friends before 2008.” Querying takes place via a search bar at the top of the user’s interface.
During a Jan. 15 press conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the beta-ness of Graph Search, cautioning that the platform is very much in the early stages and will take some time to perfect—maybe years. He also emphasized that privacy controls are very much in place: a searcher can only see things that other users allow him or her to see.
Even if Graph Search is rough, it offers a potential challenge to any number of organizations, starting with…
Pundits and journalists such as Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan have already pointed out how the ability to search Facebook in a multidimensional way—slicing data so thin that you can, for example select a restaurant in San Francisco based on the recommendations of sing friends living there who went to school with you—makes the social network a challenger to Google as a main indexer of the online world. Certainly it’s a heavy body blow against Google Plus, which was already struggling to take on Facebook on its own terms and now seems weaker on search, the one area in which it should rule from an iron throne.
(Facebook relies on Bing for searches outside the network, an extension of its long-running partnership with Microsoft, although Zuckerberg indicated during the Jan. 15 press conference that he wouldn’t mind having Google serve as Facebook’s Web-facing search engine.)
“One of my favorite queries is recruiting,” Zuckerberg told a Wired reporter in December, when Facebook executives gave the magazine an early preview of Graph Search. “Let’s say we’re trying to find engineers at Google who are friends of engineers at Facebook.”
Indeed, the ability to search across Facebook’s network could open the door to recruiters and bosses looking for very specific sets of skills, provided their potential applicants have public profiles. That could complicate things for Websites such as LinkedIn, which have differentiated themselves on the marketplace as the networks for careers and recruiting.
Graph Search is a massive newborn, and like all massive newborns, it has the potential to get really messy. There’s always the chance that some bug or policy related to the search engine could result in a privacy-related snafu, which would force Facebook to go into damage-control mode and perhaps even roll back some aspect of the service.