The social networking giant will now know more about you and your friends -- and, one assumes, so will advertisers. That's because, beginning this week, Facebook will be rolling out to U.S. users its new search engine, Graph Search.
The new functionalities allow users to search the social graph -- the interwoven interests, relationships and histories -- of other users by new forms of natural language-based Boolean combinations, and the results could signal a new level of usefulness for search engines. For instance, a user will now be able to search "Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia my friends like" or other such combinations to find people, photos, places and interests.
By being able to find friends who like a certain TV series, for instance, users can see their taste connections with others, and advertisers can see a micro-community defined by its affinity for a product or service. Searching for "likes" about local businesses based on various parameters could also become a huge driver of word-of-mouth and traffic to those establishments.
Integrated with Bing
Graph Search was first announced as a beta in January, and has been undergoing testing and feedback by users since then. The company said that the beta revisions resulted in faster searches, a wider understanding of question types by the search engine, a better display of the most relevant results first, and an easier-to-see-and-use search box.
Facebook said that various Graph Search improvements are already in the pipeline, including making it easier for users to search and discover topics from content in posts and comments, as well as a mobile version.
Graph Search is integrated with Microsoft's Bing search engine, so that Bing will return Web searches if Facebook doesn't have many results for a particular query. In a January posting on the Facebook blog following the beta announcement, product manager Tom Stock and engineering manager Lars Rasmussen noted that Graph Search and web search "are very different."
They pointed out that web search "is designed to take a set of keywords (for example: 'hip hop') and provide the best results that match those keywords." With Graph Search, a user combines phrases, such as "my friends in New York who like Jay-Z." Unlike two web searches conducted at the same time by different users, the exact same Graph Search by different users, at the same time, will have different results.
Another key difference is privacy. Given the company's successful experience in riling up its users over countless privacy issues, Facebook is making an effort to address the matter. A notice on each user's home page will provide a reminder of how to control which content is shared, and with whom. Searches, such as "photos of Barcelona," return photos taken by a user's friends, plus photos which are publicly accessible.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, notes that it was "high time Facebook opened up the social graph" that the relationships and overlapping interests between its huge number of users have created, and put "it to work for its users."
While some Facebook-watchers have raised questions about the privacy issues, Shimmin pointed out that these concerns "already exist," and Graph Search simply "highlights the existing issues."