Ever thought that Facebook’s built-in search interface, mildly speaking, underuses the enormous potential of the social giant? The most common, and often the only one utilized, mode of is inputting the full name of a new acquaintance or a long-time-no-seen ol’ pal to find that person and send a friend request. Quite predictably, using the search has not made it into the top-five daily Facebook activity list, according to Pew Internet research. Well, the social networking giant seems to be well aware of the vast untapped potential of the Open Graph data it has accumulated over the years, including (as of February 2013) more than 1 billion active personal profiles with over 100 billion interconnections, as well as tens of millions of pages representing everything from multinational corporations to local shawarma places – not to mention countless terabytes of images, videos, and other personalized resources.

A New Philosophy of Search?

And there you have it – on January 15, Facebook rolled out a beta version of its newest product – the Graph Search tool. In essence, it offers a whole new way of navigating the piles of information stored by the social network. According to its creators, Facebook Graph Search stands apart from the “traditional” search engines such as Google and Yahoo in two important ways:

- Instead of spitting out ordered lists of links to websites which might have the answers you are looking for, Facebook Graph Search aims to return the list of answers. In other words, when you tap “Places to eat frog legs in Paris” into Google, it will provide links to lists of restaurants and cafes which match your query; Facebook Graph Search, in turn, will give you a ready list of places which serve the French specialty, ranked by user activity, including foremost your friends (likes, shares, comments, etc) and not by an obscure algorithm based on interlinking hypertext.

- Secondly, Facebook Graph Search aspires to understand full sentences which people use in normal speech – instead of providing adequate results only after you chop your search query into keywords, as we’ve gotten used to with traditional search engines. So instead of “Microsoft employees” you could type “Employees of Microsoft who support Barack Obama and are friends of my friends” – and the new search tool will understand perfectly well what you ask of it.

As always on the Internet, even with the limited-access beta version around, some people have already found ways to have fun by getting non-empty results for seemingly ridiculous search requests, such as e.g. “Current employers of people who like Racism” or “Married people who like Prostitutes”.

A Google Killer?

Graph Search Logo

On a more serious note though, industry analysts, including e.g. Justin Post of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, have posted favorable forecasts as to the Facebook Graph Search potential, both in terms of business development in general and revenue generation in particular. Most believe that Facebook’s users will find the new tool engaging and handy, yet doubt that Graph Search will pose a serious threat to the search industry’s current hegemon Google.

We think there are two rather important clauses missing from this statement: “Google as a whole” and “in the immediate future”. Firstly, some of Google’s products such as Google Maps and Images may quite possibly see users gradually switching to the more semantic and personalized Facebook Graph Search very quickly. Secondly, Google’s core area of competence – the broader Web – may also become compromised by the new competitor over the next couple of years if Facebook manages to properly integrate web indexing by its long-time partner Bing (Google’s closest competitor on par with Yahoo).

Privacy? What Privacy?

That is all the (possibly) bright future of Facebook Graph Search, but for now one of the strongest reactions by the users have been (surprise, surprise!) privacy concerns. The social network was quick to react, reassuring that the search tool will only enable other people to find information about you according to your Facebook account privacy settings – which we think is completely logical. The main principle is that the Graph Search will not “uncover” any new data – it is a tool to improve your experience from navigating what’s already there.

What’s In It for Me?

How could a webmaster benefit from the unfolding of Facebook Graph Search? How about a new kind of “semantic Search Engine Optimization”, promoting pages of companies, organizations, or places for a billion people per month? Alright, that may still be a premature call. At the very least, keep it in mind and follow its future developments, as our small article has hopefully convinced you that it might well be “the next big thing”. If it hasn’t, consider if anyone could envisage back in 2005 that Facebook would outpace and effectively kill MySpace in a couple of years? Neither could anyone predict in 1999 that a semi-raw search algorithm named Google could eventually become more popular than Yahoo, AOL, and all others combined.

“This is one of the coolest things we’ve done in a while,” – commented Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, on the press conference unveiling Facebook Graph Search. We can add that even in case it is not destined to become the next Google, it surely has a potential to make our online and mobile experience much more fulfilling and exciting.