Facebook has finally taken the first step toward challenging Google's search dominance with the rollout of a much anticipated product called Graph Search. But “it’s not Web search,” insisted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during Tuesday’s press event at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
“Web search is designed to take any open-ended query and provide links [for the answer]. Graph Search is designed to take a precise query and return to you the answer [not links],” Zuckerberg said.
Starting today Facebook will begin rolling out Graph Search in a limited beta—beta being a key descriptor. Zuckerberg made it clear numerous times that the product is in early development and will be updated over “years and years.” Initially Graph Search is focused on four areas: people, photos, places and interests. Eventually Graph Search will be available on mobile, be searchable in all languages and include users’ posts and Open Graph actions.
And when users submit a search query that Facebook hasn’t indexed for—like “weather in Menlo Park, California”—they will be shown a search results page powered by Bing. “I don’t necessarily think people will come to Facebook to do Web searches like this, but in the event we don’t have what they’re searching for, it’s nice to have this,” Zuckerberg said.
In a new all-Facebook-blue search box that will be blended into the traditional Facebook header, users will be able to type queries like “friends who live in San Francisco and went to Stanford University” or “photos I like” or “Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles my friends like” or “TV shows people like.” As users type queries, they will be presented suggested queries based on the words they type, and after a user inputs a query, they will be able to filter the results via filter tools that run along the right side of the page and dynamically update based on a query.
For example, if a search is place-related, they’ll be shown a map on the right side with the ability to change the restaurant category or region. If a search is interest-related, they’ll able to filter what users are able to influence the results, limiting the query to friends’ likes or expanding it to anyone’s public likes. Overall, Facebook said that Graph Search results will be ranked according to engagement metrics like comments and likes as well as the querying users' connections to a given result. For example, if someone searches for "Restaurants in New York," the restaurants they like on Facebook as well as those their friends like will pop up most prominently.
Graph Search should also spawn new results. A user could originally query “TV shows people like,” see Game of Thrones as a top result, then click a sublink to results for “TV Shows people who like Game of Thrones also like.” There is also an “Extend This Search” option that suggests related searches that could lead to things like a grid of videos from “TV shows my friends like” that users could click to play, an example the company demoed during the event.
Taking privacy into account, search results are limited to what users are already able to see on Facebook. While Zuckerberg and crew focused a lot on queries related to their friends, results are not limited to content from users’ friends or even friends of friends. Anything an individual user can already see on Facebook can pop up in Graph Search, including any information non-friends have shared publicly on Facebook.
For example if a user queries “People who like Pepsi,” they’ll only be shown those people who have publicly shared on Facebook that they like Pepsi—with those who are friends with the querying user displayed most prominently. Facebook rolled out new privacy shortcuts last month as a way to help users manage what content involving them that others can see on Facebook. Before the larger rollout of Graph Search, Facebook will append a notification atop users’ Facebook homepages encouraging them to check out their privacy settings, Zuckerberg said.
For now, not much has changed for brands on Facebook. Asked how Facebook would monetize Graph Search, Zuckerberg said the product “could potentially be a business over time but for now we’re focused on building out the user experience.” The existing Sponsored Results product will extend to Graph Search, but nothing more has been added to that ad unit for this release, he said. Facebook director of product management Tom Stocky said Graph Search gives businesses a “more interesting” way to distribute content but that the most important thing for them will be to ensure page info is updated and accurate.
However Graph Search unlocks a load of new, intent-laden data that Facebook previously didn’t have access to, at least not so explicitly. Hypothetically Facebook could follow Google’s lead and use its search data to inform not only search results but ads shown to Facebook users. If a user is consistently searching for TV shows their friends like, that’s probably someone NBC would want to advertise against, taking that search data into account with other ad targeting criteria.
In addition, while Graph Search data will not initially be used to influence how content is shown in the News Feed or how ads are targeted to users on Facebook, it could eventually also be flowed into Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm that determines what content pops up most prominently in a user’s News Feed. Things will get even more interesting data-wise when Facebook folds in Instagram data, which Zuckerberg acknowledged would be a possibility down the line.
To underscore the significance of Graph Search to Facebook, Zuckerberg referred to it as the third of the company’s three pillar products, the other two being News Feed and Timeline.