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Daily Dose of iQ: Facebook Introduces Graph Search, But What Is It?

Yesterday, Facebook had a big press conference announcing its latest feature: Graph Search. So what is it?

Facebook has posted a video, to explain how Graph Search can help you "find more of what you're looking for through your friends and connections." You can view the video here.

After watching the video, I sat down with three of my co-workers -- Dave Emmett (Interaction Architect), Collin Prior (UX Architect/Business Analyst) and Nancy Yu Wen Sun (Interaction Architect) -- to get their take on Graph Search.

Why is this useful to Facebook users?

Dave: Facebook has always been great at providing new information about people, but it's been pretty bad so far at providing long-term value to its users from the data they and their friends put into the system. This feels like a step in the right direction to let people find relevant connections that wouldn't be apparent just by looking at your newsfeed.

Collin: Graph Search will allow users to cut through the noise and find things that interest them. Facebook is allowing people to do things they want to do; searches just weren't efficient enough to become viable for most people until now.  I think this falls in line with Facebook’s goal to be a social hub. I think it’s a great direction that will freak out some users but open doors for others. In the end, people need to become comfortable with change.

Nancy: I think the basic meaning of this function is expanding a user's network: 1. Meet new friends with the same interests, or people familiar with a topic or activity you're interested in; 2. Meet up with old and new friends depending on location; 3. Meet the potencial "Mister or Miss Right."

Can you give me some examples of how users would find value in Graph Search?

Dave: It's hard to know exactly how or why I'll use this. But the same was true of the first web search engines, and of any innovative tech product. I can see it being hugely useful when planning trips: "Which of my friends have been to Mexico?"; "Where have my friends eaten in New York?"; "Who do I know in Hong Kong?" I'm trying to learn Chinese right now. Graph Search would be great to search for my friends that speak Mandarin.

Collin: I might want to reminisce about a Mexico trip that all my friends and I went on. Or maybe I am travelling to London and want to get in touch with all my friends who are there. This focuses more on the user and what he or she wants to do.

Graph Search would be great to search for my friends that speak Mandarin.

Nancy: I often come across friends who are going to work in Beijing or Shanghai, which is coincidentally where a lot of my former classmates and acquaintances reside. I am always interested in introducing people from both parties, especially those with common interests. Graph Search would help me do that, or allow these people to find each other themselves.

This is obviously an attempt by Facebook to monetize its wealth of user data and “Google-fy” it with sponsored search results. Will it work?

Dave: If searching on Facebook becomes a core action that people use regularly, I think it will drive a huge portion of Facebook's revenue. Searching for something shows a huge amount of intent to learn about something, and relevant ads in searches could actually be valuable to users, rather than distracting them from their a friend's content. Even outside of sponsored search results, more users searching provides a big incentive to brands, retailers, bands, etc. to provide more data to Facebook, which in turn improves the search results (and Facebook's profit).

Collin: I think this feature does a good job of aligning two of Facebook’s goals: making money and letting users see what they want. As Facebook gets bigger and people use it longer, it becomes a place where people document their lives. Facebook becomes their memory repository; things that used to be private, like family photo albums, are constantly shared with other people. As a result of this vast amount of content, Facebook became something that is no longer efficient to simply browse. For this reason, better search is of utmost importance. Graph Search allows Facebook to more closely target which individuals are interested in whom, greatly increasing the value of their analytics.

It lets you find out things (things you would normally just look up on Google) on a personal level. Results are generated from trusted friends instead of from strangers.

Nancy: Looking at Graph Search through the Google lens, you quickly see the value of the new feature: It lets you find out things (things you would normally just look up on Google) on a personal level. Instead of just Googling a musical artist you're interested in, you can Graph Search your friends to see who's seen that artist in person, ask them which of the artist's albums are worth downloading, etc. It's just more "real."

What’s the take-home message here for retailers?

Dave:  Search engines had a transformative effect on how people think about finding information (and products). Graph Search has the potential to do the same (time will tell) by implanting the idea that search isn't just about the world around you but also about how you are related/connected to other things and people. In time, this could affect the expectations people have when looking for products in the physical world as well (i.e. retail). But it might not. We'll see.

Graph Search could eventually help advertisers decide where to place ads based on the demographic makeup of specific locations.

Collin: Facebook is trying to monetize its massive database, which is what marketers and retailers are trying to do all the time. Graph Search could eventually help advertisers decide where to place ads based on the demographic makeup of specific locations. The ability to target a user base is hugely valuable. From a search perspective, the concept of being able to search on any data point you want is important. Imagine if you could only run a sales report in a chronological fashion or needed to browse sales by one customer at a time. This would be useless for a retailer to go through.  Retailers instead want parameters, so they can just say "Show me all refunds of iPhones done by sales rep John Smith in Dec 2012." Creating platforms to do this is exceptionally powerful and puts power and control in the hands of the users. There can still be a layer of access and security but it opens up new doors for those with access.

Nancy: I think the word-of-mouth experience -- currently made possible by things like Yelp, LivingSocial, or even Craigslist -- would be greatly improved by Graph Search, simply because you're dealing with a trusted circle of friends instead of strangers. The value of Graph Search, of course, has yet to be seen, but I could see it being more powerful than Yelp in terms of aggregating recommendations for new restaurants, businesses and even products.

January/16, 2013