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Facebook’s Graph targets Google

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

media captionRory Cellan-Jones tries out Facebook's new search facility

After all the build-up to Facebook's event at its Californian headquarters, Mark Zuckerberg's announcement left me - and I suspect millions of its users - distinctly underwhelmed. A new way of mining the information your friends, and their friends, post on the social network does not sound revolutionary.

And its geeky name Graph Search isn't going to win any marketing awards - Facebook's boffins may be in love with the idea of their social graph, but to many people it will sound about as exciting as double maths on a Friday afternoon.

Still, there were demonstrations of just how useful this new feature could be and it looked much smarter and intuitive than the existing search box which does little more than find your friends. You could search for "people who like fencing and live in Palo Alto" or "films my friends like" or "restaurants recommended in New York".

My immediate response was that I know my friends likes and dislikes better than Facebook - and if I wanted to get a recommendation for a restaurant or a film I would ring and ask them.

But maybe Facebook has changed the nature of friendship in ways that my generation is incapable of understanding. One much younger colleague put it this way:

"It'll do well."


"Friends of friends who are single and live in London."

So maybe as a whole new aid to online dating, Graph Search will be a hit - just as so many other innovations that have been derided by users at first have gone on to be seen as an essential part of the experience. Remember the row over the newsfeed?

But is it as important to the company's future as the hype around the event suggested? Only if three things Zuckerberg said were misleading. He said:

  1. Graph Search was not about searching the web
  2. was not targeted at Google
  3. and there were no immediate plans to make money from it.

Surely, though, this search facility will be much more useful and commercially attractive if it offers users a one-stop shop - access to all the information in their social network and then in the wider web if that's not enough.

So, if I'm interested in good places to stay on the Isle of Skye, my Facebook friends' advice could be useful - but I'd also want to look beyond that.

image copyrightAFP

And in fact, through a tie-up with Microsoft's Bing, that is exactly what is likely to happen. Bing's statement about its involvement in the service says "when people want to search beyond Facebook, they see web search results from Bing with social context and additional information such as Facebook pages".

Aha - now that does sound like a threat to Google. Facebook's billion users already spend a lot of their time on the site or on its mobile phone apps, but if they leave, it is often to go to Google for search. If Graph Search more closely resembles what Bing describes, then users will be able to stay on Facebook, earning the company huge advertising revenues as they search for goods and services.

So maybe I was wrong to be underwhelmed. And perhaps there are furrowed brows at Google's Mountain View headquarters as they worry about their neighbours' devilish plans to run off with the lucrative search advertising market.

Then again, just as Google+ has shown how difficult it is to beat the top dog in social networking at its own game, maybe the firm that has defined search can be relaxed about this rival. Somehow I can't see anyone ever saying "I'll just Graph that" when they're searching for some vital piece of information.

I've now spent a morning trying out Graph Search and I'm even more confused (see my video at the top of this post). What I've found is that it is a lot of fun and quite revealing to explore your own history on the social network. I found pictures from back in 2007 that I did not remember - a useful reminder that what you put on Facebook stays on Facebook.

Another friend found that a photo she thought was completely private was visible to me - a relative had tagged her in it, over-riding her personal preferences.

But I also found that trying to find recommendations or common interests with friends was pretty useless - a search for "friends in London learning the piano" produced nothing, and the same was true of "hotels in Scotland liked by friends."

What's most interesting is searching more widely across Facebook - "hotels in Venice" will give you plenty of results, with an indication of how popular those hotels are. But there are wrinkles here too - I tried to search for hotels near Isle of Skye, and it offered one on the outskirts of London. Yet when I found a hotel I knew and entered a more precise location on Skye, up came several more places. There will be an incentive for businesses to create pages on Facebook and learn the new art of GSO - Graph Search Optimisation.

Hidden at the bottom of the search options, where you might not spot it at first, is "web search". That delivers a list of results from Bing, without you leaving Facebook.

So my early conclusion is that this new feature is a work in progress - it is a beta after all. I sense that just about everyone on the social network will want to try it, but will still rely on Google for most searches until Facebook makes it work a whole lot better.