Technology

01.15.13

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s ... Facebook

The social network’s challenge to Google, LinkedIn, and dating websites. What you need to know about the new and powerful search function. By Sam Schlinkert

On Tuesday Facebook announced a new and enhanced search feature called Graph Search, what Mark Zuckerberg called the third pillar of the Facebook ecosystem, after the News Feed and Timeline.

Graph Search, which Zuckerberg said is still in the "beta" stage, will allow all Facebook users to search every piece of content on Facebook, while also being "privacy aware." During the announcement, Zuckerberg strived to show the difference between Graph Search and a regular web search, claiming: "Graph Search is designed to show you the answer and not links to answers."

What kinds of things will you able to search for in Graph Search? Examples given in the announcement include "My friends who live in Palo Alto who like Game of Thrones," photos of me and another person, and "Friends who like Star Wars and Harry Potter," a search that they suggest could be done before a movie night.

The search can also return places and images as results, displaying locations on a map and photos in a pleasant-looking array. (If few or no results are found for a query, results from Bing, Microsoft's search engine, will populate the page.) Considering that the results of these searches will return information tied to your Facebook friends, they're clear examples of queries that a web search (read: Google) couldn't handle—leading one to wonder: is Facebook becoming more like a search engine? 

Danny Sullivan, a self-described “search-engine guru” and editor of Search Engine Land, says yes. Considering the Graph Search “helps people find information they’re looking for, then yes,” it is a search engine. “It’s just in a different … style than Google.” “They’re creating a new category [of search engine] that people aren’t used to… [a product] that Google doesn’t offer.” Since Google’s primary business model is displaying advertising on pages that give information people are searching for, Sullivan says, the company should consider Graph Search a competitor.

The possible uses of this tool may bring Facebook into competition with other types of companies as well. For example, being able to get results on queries such as "Friends of friends who are single men in San Francisco," suggests that Graph Search could be used as a dating tool, bringing Facebook into competition with OKCupid and other dating sites. The tool could work similarly for music, movies, TV shows, and so on. Sullivan says that even travel recommendation sites should feel threatened.

During the presentation, director of product management Tom Stocky implied that Facebook may be going after LinkedIn's lucrative market (note: I found out Stocky's exact title at Facebook by Googling his name and then clicking through to his LinkedIn profile). 

The company said rollout will be slow, launching to the public "over the next few weeks and months." But you can currently run a simple search of friends who live in your city and join a waiting list on the Graph Search page. And while Facebook assures us that you can only search for content that's either public or been shared with you, it's not too early to revisit your privacy settings.