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Facebook and the Future of Social Search

Graph Search
Facebook’s new Graph Search enables users to mine the vast field of social data and make connections.

No doubt you’ve heard some noises over the last few weeks about Facebook’s newest product, Graph Search.

And if you were anything like me, you skimmed over the initial announcement while stifling a yawn. Because at first glance it seems a little underwhelming, right? Sounds like a spreadsheet tool. Or a search engine for finding, well, graphs.

It’s not, of course. The seemingly unremarkable name is based on Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which fosters brand engagement via integration. In plain language, it tells you what actions your Facebook friends are taking in other applications. Whenever your news ticker reports that a friend has listened to a song, visited a restaurant, or has completed a certain level of a game, that’s Open Graph in action.

The whole point of Open Graph is for users to like, comment, or engage in the activities of their friends, thereby turning a static action by one user into a social action between many users.

Sure, “graph” may be an underwhelming word, but it fits. I like to visualize the platform as a three-dimensional plane of dots stretching into infinity. Every time you take an action — say, share an article — while connected to the Open Graph API, a new dot is created. This dot can then be mapped and sorted in relation to other dots — which is where Graph Search comes in.

It’s all about the nouns

Graph Search, which appears at the top of every Facebook page, allows people to look for people, places, things, and interests — or a combination of all of the above. Looking to see which of your friends likes cupcakes? Graph Search’s got you covered. Want find photos of people in your area eating cupcakes? Graph Search can handle that, too. Want to find mothers of people who like cupcakes, live in New York, and listen to jazz?

Well, you get the idea.

Graph Search is all about measuring the metrics of users in relation with one another. It takes “social” and makes it searchable.

Challenging Google

“What Google is to the web, Graph Search is to your social network on Facebook.”

– Jon Thomas, postadvertising.com

Sure, you can go to a search engine and look up cupcake bakeries in your neighborhood, but you won’t find which bakery is beloved by your friend Tim. Google doesn’t know that — but Facebook does, thanks to the fact that Tim “liked” the Sweet Shoppe’s fan page a few months ago. Thanks to Facebook, you’ll even be able to see the photo Tim posted of his favorite cupcake flavor, the chocolate salted caramel.

Looks like you know what you’re ordering, hmm? And you didn’t even have to bother Tim by asking his opinion!

Social is what sets Graph Search apart from Google’s search. The idea is that people are more likely to trust referrals and recommendations from people they know — whether that’s for a restaurant, a vacation destination, a company, a product, or a service. All the information “dots” that Facebook users willingly create all day is information waiting to be mined.

Facebook has referred to Graph Search as “A “Rolodex” of 1 Billion Potential Sources,” but that’s a bit of a fudge. After all, some members have privacy settings that will restrict their visibility in Graph Search. Regardless, there’s still a lot of data out there.

The social graph is big — bigger than Facebook, even. The Open Graph platform is used by several websites to connect and share. The articles on CNN are part of the graph, as are those on New York Times and Wall Street Journal. And as more sites continue to switch over to the platform, the sea of information gets even deeper.

It’s a big wide world out there, and

Some privacy, please?

With the graph being so pervasive, concerns have popped up about what people can find out about you. While you cannot opt out of your data being included in the Graph Search, you can change your privacy settings to limit your appearance. Making sure your posts can’t be seen by the public and reviewing tags from other people will help you take charge of what personal information appears in the search.

Is Graph Search the next big thing?

It’ll be hard to know until Graph Search is fully rolled out — at this article’s publishing time, Facebook users who don’t have it can request to be added to the waiting list. But I suspect this is one of those things that will slowly, quietly, alter the way we search online.

Only time will tell.

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