An Introduction to Facebook’s Game-Changing New Search Tool
The worldwide total of Facebook users reached 1 billion in September last year. More amazingly still, each day Facebook users spend a combined total of 10.5 billion minutes on the social network – a staggering and counterintuitive 20,000 years!
With an average of 3.2 billion likes and comments posted every day, no other site generates such a vast quantity of content. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could mine and use this information succinctly?
The day before yesterday, on Tuesday 15, Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to do just that. Speaking from the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the Facebook founder unveiled their new service, dubbed Facebook Graph, that searches the Social Network itself for information that has already been posted. The update would be unrecognisable from the current tool and would take the search process in a different direction to Google.
How is this different from Google?
As was carefully laid out several times by Facebook representatives at the product launch yesterday, they are not providing an alternative or a competitor to Google, they are providing a completely different service. While Google provides a search for webpages, Facebook will provide a search for digital representations of people, places and objects by using the huge amount of user-generated data accumulated over the past decade.
Considering the nature of the social network, it is unsurprising that the Social Graph will be very people and personality orientated. If looking for something to munch for lunch, Google would effortlessly present you with thousands of results for text-heavy blog posts and webpages optimised for the term ‘Best Burger in London.’ Facebook’s effort, however, will allow you to refine your search like never before with parameters such as:
‘Best Burger in London… that my friends like…’
‘that my friends’ friends like…’
‘that people who like McDonalds like. etc…’
Despite being one of the world’s most popular websites, one of the main issues for the Facebook team is that most of their traffic is lost by users leaving to perform an internet (i.e. Google) search. An agreement with Microsoft provided the first steps towards tackling this problem. The statement by Microsoft’s Bing about its involvement with the Social Graph says: when people want to search beyond Facebook, they see search results from Bing with social context and additional information such as Facebook pages.’
Since Microsoft has been a long-term investor in Facebook and actually powers the Social platform’s current search tool, the pending partnership is fairly unsurprising. Alongside the inward-looking Facebook search results, Bing would provide a list of suggestions from elsewhere online, meaning the human user doesn’t have to leave the Facebook domain.
Through various efforts and campaigns, Microsoft has been struggling to gain on Google’s lead within the search industry and has made progress in a few countries. An example is the renowned ‘Bing It On Challenge’ (which was available towards the end of last year), an online program in which the results for both search engines were compared to try and prove Bing’s (apparently) superior speed and relevance. It gained almost no traction and the difference it made to market share was negligible.
Google’s constant algorithm updates, revolutionary Google Maps, and even many of its various offline investments, such as the worryingly futuristic Google Glasses, suggest that their relentless and total domination will continue unless Microsoft implements a change in tack. Could this unconventional fusion with Facebook be that change?
Social Graph and Brands
As the public become more digitally aware, they are trusting brands less and less, demonstrated by this survey: consumer trust in online, social and mobile.
The rise in Social Media has had a leading role in causing this shift and now, through likes, shares and links it is the consumers who market and publicise brands online, whether the brands like it or not.
A more accurate and selective method of searching through the bottomless goldmine of Facebook data will make it all the more important for brands to obtain social signals and recommendations. Like Google search, one of most important factors to rank well in the Social Graph is on-going engagement. Having a lot of fans and likes will help, but to really come up trumps in the search results, relevance is key. One of the biggest positives for this change is that it will really give smaller, local businesses with loyal customer-bases a chance to rank alongside the international big dogs.
For now (and the foreseeable future), there is no paid placement, so it’s important to get certain ranking factors right. These are the most important points to keep in mind:
Important points for Brands to Rank well:
– Make sure all the information on your page is up-to-date, relevant and helpful, particularly in terms of location.
– Make sure your page is properly categorized.
-Creating a tight-knit community around your page is more effective than a load of aloof and uncommitted fans. This is because they are more likely to interact with one another, and it will be easier for you to respond.
-Try to create content and posts that will encourage them to comment and engage.
This emphasis on content, interaction and engagement is another step towards the more human and inter-connected network. With everything and everyone more closely entwined, brands will really have to push for attention and recognition – another customer win!
Is this good for Facebook users?
The increased pressure on brands to attract consistent engagement will result in a steady stream of content that has value, whether funny, inspirational, helpful or interesting. It will also dissuade spamming tactics as brands cannot afford to lose fans by clogging up their News Feeds.
Providing an effective alternative to Google and topple their monopoly on web search will initiate a bit of healthy competition and should hopefully go on to improve the quality of both services. Perhaps the approaching shadow of a Facebook-Microsoft alliance will shake Google sufficiently to address some of its more unpopular updates in recent years e.g. by reducing the number of paid ads encroaching on organic listings or perhaps ultimately quash the ever-present controversy of Google favouring its own services…
The Search Graph will undoubtedly be providing a useful service in many ways. Information given to us about services, places, holidays and events will be much more welcome and valuable to us if it comes from actual friends and acquaintances whom we like and trust, rather than a random blog post or faceless review. Searches like ‘photos taken by my friends in New York,’ or ‘nightclubs in Berlin that my German friends like,’ or perhaps, ‘plumbers recommended by my friends in Sheffield,’ are examples of some of the more useful elements that the service could provide.
Although Google is undeniably good at showing you suitable webpages and information, often we still spend time sifting through results to find something we like, want or need. With this new search facility keeping track of your preferences in a more personal and rounded way, it is highly likely that the browsing experience would be far more relevant and personal.
Mark Zuckerberg talked eagerly about expanding relationships and the real-people community feeling from his social network into the web as a whole, an idea that echoes the man who made it all possible, Tim Berners-Lee. Should we not continue the Internet creator’s vision?
Are there any issues for Facebook users?
Most of the criticism and opposition for the Graph Search has largely been moulded around the issue of privacy – a persistent blotch on Zuckerberg’s copybook. Growing concerns over the matter has been the largest reason behind huge numbers of people leaving the Social Network in both the UK and US over the past year, including 406, 360 in the last two weeks in the States alone.
Facebook insisted that it will be including an opt-out tool, shielding your information from crawlers. This, however, brings to light another issue. After a quick (digital) headcount in a Facebook group I set up yesterday, 50% of those taking part said that they would hide their personal information, while a further 30% said they would place limits and make certain portions of info. private.
Although this is obviously a tiny sample size and cannot be taken as a true representation of the online population (43 people), judging by general public concern over the platform’s past privacy issues, I cannot help feeling that the real proportions wouldn’t be too dissimilar. What is the point of a human-based search engine if there are no humans to base the searches on?
Facebook emphatically insisted that nothing would be made available that cannot already be seen. They were, however, unable to deny the fact that forgotten and hidden pieces of your past would be easy to bring to light and even posts and photos in which you have de-tagged yourself would be simple for others to access and share.
Although the personal and human touch is largely positive, it too certainly has its drawbacks. Although (perhaps) highly personal information will not be accessible by ‘unknowns,’ searches such as ‘female friends of friends who are single and live near me,’ ‘single friends of friends who are attending this nightclub on Saturday 11th,’ are examples of some of the other ways in which the tool can be used…
Like most Facebook updates, the Social Graph will be rolled out slowly over the coming months. You can find out more about it and actually sign up to the beta version here. It will be interesting to see how the project unfolds.
The increased importance on location, engagement and interaction will boost the online success of small and local businesses making the online market a fairer place to campaign. Popular little bars and restaurants, previously hidden from the untrained eye will now jump to the top of the human-driven search listings and will remain there if they continue to please the community.
The new service will take Social Media to the next stage, joining friends, family, customers and businesses in a global community like never before. The obstacles of distance, time and sheer volume (of data), will be removed by the Social Graph, meaning that praise and appreciation for hardworking and engaging businesses and brands can be shared and heard immediately and easily.
Although the project is not without its opponents and niggling issues, for the Internet as a whole, moving forward in the two largest online industries (search and social) is hugely important and certainly desirable. The nature of the industry will mean that problems and unpopular elements will be altered and fixed as quickly as possible, as without willing participants who are happy to engage, the Graph Search is useless.
What do you think about Facebook’s Graph Search? Please share your thoughts and/or concerns below in the comments.
Some of the resources I used:
ReadwriteSocial – Facebook’s Graph Search = The Ultimate Online Dating Service
TechRadar – Facebook Social Graph: Social Lock up Your Data!
Brand Channel – Will Social Graph Bring a Brighter Future
The Social Skinny – Facebook stats and figures
SocialBakers – Facebook Stats