Facebook's new 'Graph Search' could be social game changer

Social network unleashes data trove behind its 1B worldwide users

Facebook today took the wraps off a new search tool that could be a game changer for social networking, according to one analyst.

Basically, Facebook is unleashing the collective knowledge and opinions of its one billion users around the world.

"Facebook Graph Search has the potential to really change the game over time," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "The power of Graph Search comes from Facebook's sheer size. The more data there is to search and map, the more valuable the results. It can make Facebook a much more valuable tool."

Earlier today, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage at the company's Menlo Park, Calif. offices for a press event that had been preceded by nearly a week of increasing speculation about the company's plans. While most rumors had the company prepping a smartphone or new mobile strategy, Zuckerberg said its focus is on search.

So far, there have been two major pillars of Facebook, the Newsfeed and Timeline, Zuckerberg told about 150 reporters at the event. Now Facebook is adding a third pillar: Graph Search.

The feature, which will appear as a bigger search bar at the top of each page, is designed offer up an answer after combing through Facebook's own massive store of user information.

Want to find a great seafood restaurant in San Francisco, for example? Graph Search will find out what restaurants your friends, and even their friends, have tried and liked.

If two people ask the same question, they're very likely to get different results because the results will be based on their individual set of friends and contacts.

Facebook has a massive collection of information about what restaurants, sneakers, appliances and bicycles its users have tried. It also has a similar amount of data on who has attended a certain college and now works at a certain company in a particular city.

Looking for a locally owned bookstore in Seattle? Looking for an old classmate in Maine? What's the best peanut butter or hybrid car?

Facebook is hoping you'll search for the answer on its site.

"This is a very good move for Facebook and it will earn them points with both common users and commercial users alike," said Olds. "There are more than a billion users on Facebook now, each one with some sort of data attached to them, whether it's stuff they've uploaded or their connections or whatever. This is a huge amount of interesting and useful data on its own, but the interrelationships between all of these users and things is even more valuable."

Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst, noted that while some people might be disappointed about Facebook's announcement today, it could be more important than they realize. "Users have been wanting a good search capability for a long time," said Kagan. "Will this be the answer? So far Facebook search has been awful.... If done right this could lead to another wave of Facebook growth."

Last fall, Zuckerberg said in an on-stage interview that he was interested in pursuing search and that Facebook, at that point, already handled about a billion queries a day.

Even so, Gartner analyst Brian Blau said that didn't fully prepare the company to take on a search job as big as the one just launched.

"...This is new tech," he said. "They had to solve lots of tech problems, including natural language search and all the issues behind making the search real-time, while respecting the privacy and audience settings on each piece of content."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said this isn't a project that Facebook pulled off in the last few months.

"Great search is a very difficult, multi-year effort," said Moorhead. "Facebook had to leverage what they had with the current site, then add additional search filters and algorithms to take it to the next level. Instead of providing links to searches, it provides the data."

In this video provided by Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook employees discuss the company's new Graph Search technology. The company announced the beta of the new feature on Jan. 15, 2013.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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